Upward Mobility

One of the principles of Jewish law is: “we ascend in matters of holiness and not descend.”

This principle conveys a dual message: First we must always look for ways to enhance our spiritual lives and commitment to Torah and Mitzvos, and, at the least we should not decline in matters of holiness.

The most popular example of this principle comes from our celebration of Chanukah.  We follow the School of Hillel’s opinion that we should light the Chanukah candles in ascending order, adding another light each night.  This is in opposition to the view of the School of Shammai, who say we should start with eight candles and kindle descending numbers on successive nights.

Another example of the lesson of ascending is the law that we should first adorn ourselves with the Talis and then ascend to a higher by putting on the Tefillin, which possess a greater measure of holiness.

The Biblical source for the second part of the principle, that we may not descend, is derived from this week’s parsha:

“Moses set up the Tabernacle, positioned its sockets, put up its beams, put in its bolts, and set up its pillars.”

Rashi, in his commentary to the Talmud (Menachos 99b), explains that this verse makes it clear that Moses set up the entire Tabernacle by himself. He did not delegate any of these activities to the Kohanim, because that would have resulted in a decline in stature of the one who erected the Tabernacle. No one could compare to Moses, and once Moses was engaged in its construction he could not allow anyone of an inferior rank to participate.

The Anomaly of the Jewish Month

The principle of always ascending and not descending in matters of holiness raises a fundamental question about the very structure of the Jewish calendar and its metaphorical application to the Jewish people.

The Jewish calendar follows the lunar cycle, during which the moon waxes and wanes. The beginning point of a Hebrew month is known as Rosh Chodesh.  That is when the moon is born and barely visible. The moon’s visibility increases night by night, waxing until the fifteenth of the month, when it begins to wane.

The question this poses is twofold:

First, how, in light (no pun intended) of the Jewish value of increasing light and not diminishing it, can we have a system which highlights (sorry: again no pun intended) the diminution of light?

The question concerns not only the moon but also the Jewish people who follow the lunar calendar because, as the Midrash states, we are like the moon with our ups and downs. How are we to understand the lesson of a continually waning moon when we ought to be internalizing a message of constant growth and ascendance instead?

Second, why do we count all the days of the month in their ascending order? Shouldn’t the days after the full moon, i.e., day 16 and beyond, be referred to again as days 14, 13 etc., which would reflect their true status as diminished days?

The Rebbe’s answer to these two questions (Likkutei Sichos Volume 34 p. 48-50 and Sefer Hasichos 5752 Volume 1, p. 155) conveys an important message to us, specifically for these times of, arguably, spiritual decline.

Decreased Light with Enhanced Humility

The Rebbe based his answer on the Talmudic account of G‑d’s “dialogue” with the moon (Chullin 60b). Initially, G‑d made the moon and sun equal.  The moon complained that it was untenable to have two equal luminaries. G‑d responded by telling the moon to diminish itself.

This, the Rebbe explains, is the message of the waning moon. Contrary to the understanding that the second half of the month, with its diminishing moon, is a sign of diminished spirituality; it is actually a time of increased humility and self-abnegation. The waning of the moon does not mean that we decrease in all of the other positive areas of growth. It suggests that, precisely when we reach our peak of perfection and become a “full moon,” we are in need of the second half of the month with its message of humility.

Less Light; More Essence

The Rebbe takes this a step further:

The difference between the growth in the first half of the month and growth in the second half is that as moon waxes, it casts an incremental increase of light. Our personalities shine. In the second half of the month, as the moon wanes, we draw closer to the source of the light.

In the astronomical sense, while the moon is waxing, it is farther away from the sun, whose light it reflects. In the second half of the month, however, the reason for the diminished light is that the moon actually is moving closer to the light’s source, the sun. In the first half of the cycle we have more sunlight; in the second half we have more sun!

The analogue here is that in the first half of the month we, who are compared to the moon, grow in terms of reflecting G‑dly light.  As the Psalmist teaches us, G‑d is “likened,” as it were, to the sun (Psalm 84:12). In the second half of the month, because of our enhanced humility and submission to G‑d, we become closer to the Luminary itself.

The Heels of Moshiach

The above analysis reflects the history of the Jewish people itself. When we look at the state of the Jewish nation today, it may appear that we are spiraling downward. Spiritually speaking, we appear to be in the second half of the lunar month with its diminishing light.

Indeed, this perception seems to be supported by our Sages, who refer to the period prior to the coming of Moshiach as the “Heels of Moshiach.” One meaning of this phrase is that all of history can be compared to the human body. If Moses and his generation are regarded as the “heads” of Jewish history, closest to the heavens, then we are regarded as its heels, closest to the earth.

However, while that assessment is valid, it is only true in regard to the amount of spiritual light. In terms of our closeness to the Divine Source of the light, the reverse is true. The diminished light we experience is a direct consequence of our approaching the final stretch of Galus-exile and our ultimate union with G‑d. We are at the point where our closeness to G‑d is more pronounced than ever. To borrow a traditional statement made by presidents in their State of the Union addresses: “The state of our union is strong.”

Despite appearances to the contrary, we are drawing near the New Moon, with its message of total unity with G‑d, even as we experience diminished light. We stand now on the threshold of the Messianic Age. It will be ushered in by Moshiach, at which time the moon’s light will be restored to its original glory. In spiritual terms, it means that even as we get close to the Source and become one with G‑d, the light will not be diminished. We will have our union and our light, too.

Remembering through Concealment

The very name of this week’s parsha, Pikudei, alludes to the above. The root of the word Pikudei connotes both absence and remembrance; Galus-exile and Geulah-Redemption. In the Biblical book of Shmuel, we find the double expression: “You will be remembered (v’nifkad’ta) because your place will be missing (yipaked).” How can one word convey contradictory meanings?

The above analysis of the waning stage of the lunar cycle can explain the idea of remembrance caused by absence or concealment. As stated, the waning of the moon is not a negative sign but one that actually suggests greater closeness. Indeed, the root of the word Pikudei is also used by the Talmud to describe intimacy. The same term was used by the Torah to describe the Exodus from Egypt. This period of concealment is actually a prelude to the most intimate relationship we will have with G‑d in the Messianic Age. 

27th of Adar: Concealment and Closeness

The above message is particularly poignant at this time of the year. We read the parsha Pikudei every year around the 27th of Adar, when the Rebbe’s physical condition denied us, temporarily, of our ability to hear and see him and bask in his light. To us, this period of concealment is extremely painful. However, the Rebbe’s teaching concerning the second half of the lunar cycle provides us with a far more optimistic color: rgb(34, 34, 34); font-family: arial, sans-serif; font-size: 12.8000001907349px; text-align: justify; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);">One may find a hint to all of the above in a peculiar omission in many editions of the Torah. Most standard editions of the Torah list the number of verses at the end of each parsha, as well as a word or phrase that contains the same numerical value as the number of verses as a mnemonic. There is one notable exception. In all of these editions no number or mnemonic is mentioned for this week’s parsha—Pikudei! 

The Rebbe, in a letter, suggested that originally it may have stated: “92 verses, bli kol siman.” Translated literally it could read, “92 verses without any mnemonic.” A printer may have misconstrued this to mean that he should omit the number of verses because there was no mnemonic for it, when in actuality, the words “without any” are themselves the mnemonic.

Perhaps, there is a deeper significance to this mnemonic, bli kol. The word kol can mean “everything.” That is a term Rashi uses to describe a leader: “haNassi hu hakol-the leader is everything.” This suggests that all of the Jewish people are represented by and contained within the soul an authentic Jewish leader.

Hence, the mnemonic “92 verses; bli kol is the mnemonic” can now be understood to suggest that when it appears that the leader’s light has diminished at the age of 92, that itself is the reminder (Pikudei) and provides us with the sign that he is here and we are even closer to him.