When Shabbat falls in the darkest part of the month, the Jewish world reads Torah's queerest story. What is the medicine?
So I asked myself, what is the medicine for this week? For a week so terrible. For a week that saw such violence, and that ushered in waves of fear and hopelessness. What is the medicine for a week like this? Is there medicine for a week like this?
I am usually a liberal doler-out of hope. But this week it wasn't coming. I felt gloom. I had apocalyptic dreams. And I served as ear and shoulder for other people's distress – people sharing with me their fear, both global and personal. I had no answers, and no words of encouragement to offer to them, or to myself.
But sometimes medicine comes even when you're not looking for it. Even when you have given up on finding it.
I had given up on it, but still, I have a job here; I've gotta say something. So I began, rather stoically, to look at this week's Torah to see what might be squeezed out of this particular turnip.
That's when I noticed that tonight is a special Shabbat. I know I say that a lot. I'm often explaining some quirk of calendar that makes this Shabbos different from all other Shabboses. But this Shabbat is rare and surprising. It is called Shabbat Machar Chodesh. Machar Chodesh means "tomorrow is the new moon." Shabbat Machar Chodesh is the Shabbat that falls one day before Rosh Chodesh – one day before the new moon.
And yes, this is a thing.
It means that tonight, on this Shabbat, we have no moon at all. An utterly dark night but for whatever the Milky Way can offer us. Having Shabbat on such a night is, for reasons I don't fully understand, slightly rare, happening only every 2 or 3 years. But yes, it is a thing, in a way that we children of electric lights perhaps cannot fully appreciate.
When Shabbat falls on the dark day before the new moon, it disrupts our pattern of Torah reading. So tomorrow the Jewish world will, as expected, read from Leviticus about the High Priest and the two goats of the Yom Kippur ritual that we also read at Yom Kippur. So far so good.
But instead of the expected haftarah portion from Ezekiel, full of bombast, and bloodshed and blame, we instead read an excerpt from I Samuel, Chapter 20. That is, tomorrow the entire Jewish world, no matter how progressive or how conservative, will read the queerest story of the Hebrew bible – the story of Jonathan and David.
Why this portion? Not because of its plot or its characters, not because it has some special symbolism. The rabbis of antiquity slated this portion for Shabbat Machar Chodesh because in its opening verse, Jonathan turns to David and says, machar chodesh. "Tomorrow is the new moon."
That's the whole tie-in. That's it. A biblical product placement for the day before a new moon.
I am mystified by how the rabbis thought this was a good idea. But I am delighted they thought it was. Because this is a great story. Steamy, suspenseful and so queer.
Jonathan is the son of King Saul, the first king of Israel. David is his lover, eventually to be the second king of Israel.
In my experience, whenever Jonathan and David are mentioned in a Jewish context, it quickly devolves into a were-they-or-weren't-they conversation, usually pressed by someone who says they weren't. But I'm going to skip right over that conversation because the text speaks for itself.
It is clear they are in love with each other. It is clear they are so into each other. Their love burns all the hotter because it is a forbidden love – not because they are both men (or not only because they are both men) but because Jonathan's father, King Saul, hates David and – correctly – sees him as a threat to his throne.
Shakespeare could not have done better in setting the stage. Jonathan is prepared to give up everything for David. He tries to shield him from the king's wrath. He helps him escape Saul's reach. He does this, risking his own safety and his father's favor. Jonathan and David plan their plans in the dark of night. Their breathless conversation could easily be scripted for Romeo and Juliet, or Tony and Maria.
And, like Tony and Maria, they swear an oath to each other in a "One Hand One Heart" kind of way. They say, hineh Yah beyni u-veynkha ad olam. "May God witness this promise between us forever." Words that are pretty much as close to a wedding vow as we see in Torah.*
But when King Saul perceives that his son Jonathan has helped David escape, he flies into a rage, screaming cruelties at his son, and Jonathan storms out.
The two lovers meet up secretly one more time before David goes into exile. This is not a dispassionate, handshake meeting. Instead, at this rendezvous, it says poetically:
וַיִשְּׁקוּ אִישׁ אֶת–רֵעֵהוּ וַיִּבְכּוּ אִישׁ אֶת–רֵעֵהוּ
Vayishku ish et-re'ehu. Vayivku ish et-re'ehu.
“Each kisses the other; each cries with the other.” Then they part, once again repeating their vow, saying, "May God be witness to the oath between you and me, and between my seed and yours."
And that's it. Their story starts earlier; their story continues later. But this is the snapshot that we get on Shabbat Machar Chodesh. We are seeing them at perhaps the darkest point in their story, just like this Shabbat is the darkest point in the month.
And truthfully – spoiler alert! – they don't get their happy ending. But today that's not our problem, because today that's not our text. Whatever sly rabbi slated this story for this moment wanted us to walk away from it with a sense of danger and a sense of possibility. For that sly rabbi, the kisses and the tears and the promises were the point.
So maybe this darkest-before-the-dawn story is the medicine for this week. It is queer medicine; it is love medicine.
And here is the prescription. In the dark times, when vengeful and erratic tyrants are pressing, when we are made to feel like outlaws, when we see the danger in fleeing and a different danger in staying put; when it seems like all options are closing in on us – we can do like David and Jonathan: we can love. We can love each other even when love is a transgression. Because in this moment, love is transgressive; and therefore love is full of radical potential. Loving the poor, loving the stranger, with or without documentation. Love between Jews and Muslims, between Blacks and Whites; loving each other, crying together when needed, and committing to each other, for the wellbeing of our seed – that is, for the future that we are sowing. This is radical and simple; this is transgressive; this is the queer medicine for a dark time.
I want to point out that today is not called Shabbat Choshekh. It is not the Shabbat of Darkness. It is Shabbat Machar Chodesh. The Shabbat of Imminent Light. Tomorrow is the new moon. Tomorrow there will be light. Tomorrow there will be chiddush, there will be renewal. Tomorrow there will be something new we haven't thought of yet.
I will be heartened by this. I will choose to be heartened rather than hardened. Perhaps it is just in my nature. Or perhaps that is the message of this Shabbat. When things seem darkest, the new light, the new era, is coming. Machar chodesh. Tomorrow the light. Count on it.
* Interestingly, the other contender for this title would be Ruth’s words to Naomi – another interestingly queer moment of Torah.