“And Hashem made two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the smaller light to dominate the night…”
The Torah first refers to both the sun and the moon as hame’oros hagedolim, “the great lights,” but then describes them as the “greater” and the “lesser” lights.
Chazal teach us that originally the sun and the moon were equal in size. However, the moon complained to Hashem, saying, “It is impossible for two kings to use the same crown.”
The Ribbono shel Olam responded by instructing the moon to “go and make yourself smaller.”
The moon argued that it was being punished for making a valid point, and Hashem sought to appease it. He created many stars to conciliate it; in addition, Klal Yisrael would mark their Yamim Tovim based on lunar calculations; tzaddikim would be compared to the moon; furthermore, “Hakadosh Baruch Hu said, ‘Bring an atonement for Me, for My having reduced the size of the moon,’ and one of the korbanos of Rosh Chodesh is a male goat, which is brought as a korban chatas for this purpose.
What was so wrong with what the moon said? The claim it made regarding two kings using the same crown appears to be legitimate. Harav Nesanel Quinn, zt”l, longtime menahel of Mesivta Torah Vodaas, gave the following explanation:
The moon did have a valid claim. But it was only the moon that had the problem, because it saw itself as a king. On the other hand, the sun — “shemesh” in lashon kodesh — saw itself as a mere shamash or servant, whose job it would be to warm and light up the world. It would not be a problem to have more than one shamash performing this job. Because the moon saw itself as a king, Hashem reduced it in size and importance.
A person should go through life seeing his role as akin to that of the sun, a shamash created to serve the world, rather than a king.
The concept of “an atonement for Hashem” is beyond our limited scope of understanding. All of Hashem’s ways are just and without fault and therefore need no “atonement.” This midrash is meant as a lesson for us; if we have to rebuke someone, even if he deserves the rebuke, we are obligated to try to appease and conciliate him.
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There are numerous esoteric explanations of this midrash as well. One of them is that while gadol, “great” or “large,” is generally considered to be a positive term, and katan, “small,” is generally perceived as negative, this is not always the case.
Children are often referred to by Chazal as ketanim. They know that they cannot manage without their parents, and it is their wholesome and pure dependence on the adults in their lives that makes them so endearing. But if someone who is on a relatively low spiritual level (“katan”) thinks that he can manage his spiritual life on his own, he is compared to a person sitting in a coal-black cellar, never tasting the glory of the light, without an inkling of what he is missing. An individual who is on a higher level of ruchniyus, one who has tasted the light, realizes that he cannot do anything in the world — and certainly not something as lofty as avodas Hashem — on his own. Rather, he cries out to his Father in Heaven: “Teach me! Show me the way!”
This in itself is a lofty level of avodas Hashem, the recognition of being a katan, knowing how limited and inferior a mere mortal is relative to the enormity of his spiritual calling. This in turn allows for and stimulates growth in avodas Hashem.
Yaakov Avinu was the “small son,” as was Dovid Hamelech, for they reached this level of katan. In this context, katnus symbolizes intense spiritual growth.
When Hashem created the world, in order that the wicked should not make use of the original “great light,” He hid it for the tzaddikim in the future.
The moon wondered about this light. Would it be totally off limits until the advent of the tzaddikim of later times? Or would it be a situation similar to the plague of darkness, when it was light for Bnei Yisrael but dark for the Egyptians? If the latter, then the light would not spread evenly; instead, every tzaddik would receive his own amount of light depending on his spiritual stature. Even the same tzaddik would at different times merit lesser and greater portions of the light.
If that were the case, it would mean periods of regression and growth for the moon as well. Therefore, the moon was troubled at being referred to as one of the “great lights,” a term which seemed to bar growth. It argued that “it is impossible for two kings to use the same crown.” It was not only referring to the “two kings” but to the “same crown” — i.e., being constantly on the same level.
The moon was told that the original light was hidden until the distant future, and since it wished to experience growth, it would have to become even smaller than it was at present; then it could “grow” back to its current position.
(Adapted from a teaching of the Pieczesner Rebbe, zy”a)