Solar Eclipse and Spiritual Meaning

Judaism marvels at everything in nature.  The solar eclipse is an opportunity to feel awe.

Who is planning on watching the eclipse on Monday?

You might not have the chance to witness another total solar eclipse – unless you go to Texas in 2024.  Here’s what happens – the moon completely covers the sun – and the sun rapidly seems to shift shape. As the moon completely obscures the sun, the sun’s tenuous atmosphere, the corona becomes visible.  One astronomer I read called it one of the most awe-inspiring sights that a human can experience.  My daughter traveled up to Oregon with many others who understand that this is an extraordinary opportunity to see it more clearly.

This morning I want to share some spiritual reflections on this unique moment from Jewish sources.  Judaism marvels at everything in nature.  The solar eclipse is an opportunity to feel awe.  In the Talmud there is a long section about astronomy – we calculate orbits in order to determine when the new moon will occur in order to celebrate holidays at the proper time.  At the end of the section it says that as we study science and astronomy, the impact is that we appreciate God’s creation.

While there is not a specific blessing to recite over the solar eclipse, it presents a spiritual opportunity to marvel and cultivate awe. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about radical amazement being part of a religious mindset.  Let’s allow that part of ourselves to emerge:  Say your own blessing, or use one from tradition that might fit.  Saying blessings awakens us spiritually to the normal things which occur every day – but in fact are extraordinary and should not be overlooked.  There is a blessing for seeing large-scale wonders of nature, such as mountains, hills, deserts, seas, long rivers, lightning and the sky: Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit – Praised are you God, Ruler of the Universe who makes the works of creation.  Say that blessing on Monday. Or say a blessing about creation from your own heart.  Look at the prayer of Rabbi Nachman:

Dear God,
open my eyes
to see
the countless amazing miracles
You perform for me
Open my mind
to understand
that what appears to be
the actual order of things
is in truth miraculous
in every way.

Use the prayer book, Rav Nachman, a poem or personal words to generate awe as you marvel at creation. The spiritual response to an eclipse is awe.

But for most cultures, throughout history and even some Jewish sources view a solar eclipse as a source of fear.  Many ancient cultures believed it was the end of the world – it was a time of great trepidation.  One Talmud section discusses how a solar eclipse is a bad omen – a sign of God’s displeasure with human behavior. Taken literally, these texts are religion at its worse – blaming humans for suffering they didn’t create.  Read interpretively, these texts use natural phenomena to enable us to reflect on what is going on in the world so we are motivated to make a difference.

Listen to this curious section, which sees an eclipse as a bad omen for the world – a sign of Divine displeasure. It then gives an analogy: “This is similar to a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and placed a lantern before them to illuminate the hall. The king became angry at them and said to his servant: Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.”  The eclipse is Divine anger at humans!

In another section of the Talmud there is another discussion about eclipses being a bad omen – either for the world, or the Jewish people.  And then it asks what are the communal deeds that lead to this.  It mentions: the death of a public figure who is not mourned appropriately, a woman who is assaulted and no one came to her aid, people who lie and give false testimony and some other reasons.

Let’s try to understand this.  Given that eclipses are natural and predictable phenomena -how can the Rabbis see Divine anger connected to specific acts?

There are a few possibilities:

  1. Deep seated superstitions connected to the natural world remain part of people’s world view. Just because you understand that a black cat does not really have anything to do with bad luck, it might send a shiver up your spine when you see one.  Most of us have superstitions we know make no sense.  It is hard to eradicate this kind of cultural legacy and visceral reaction.
  2. Maybe certain natural phenomena do impact our behavior.  For all that we embrace free will – the moon makes us do crazy things. There are correlations between nature and behavior. An emergency room doctor shared with me that there is empirical evidence of hospital visits increasing on full moons.  We do have free will – but certain things impact that freedom.
  3. The Rabbinic connection of eclipse with human behavior is most interesting to me. On the one hand – it is dangerous – we create causality that may not be true – something we did caused a terrible thing to happen.  We run the risk of blaming ourselves for things that have nothing to do with us. But there is another way to see this section that I believe opens important doors for meaning.

Rare natural phenomena cause us to ask what is causing darkness in our world.  The text speculates and uses the natural phenomena – be it lack of rain, famine, destruction of Temple or a solar eclipse as a way to cause us to look at and to critique society.  The text on solar eclipse speculates –  maybe it is not giving people the respect they deserve; maybe it is not protecting the vulnerable – not believing and defending a woman who has been attacked; maybe it is not having a system of justice that works.

The Talmud opens the door for us to understand the role that we play in the darkness of our world, and that invites us to bring light.  It is for us to re-write the Talmud text each generation as we reflect on the darkness in our world – its causes and the responses it demands.  I am suggesting that Talmud texts connecting darkness – solar eclipse – with societal ills are not to taken literally – but used as a springboard to say that anything out of the ordinary is a springboard to look deeper at what is occurring in society.

That is the call of this moment.

There is no question but that we are living in dark and disturbing times – times of hatred and racism.  Who could imagine in America in 2017 Neo-Nazis carrying torches shouting “Jews will not replace us”, KKK members carrying assault rifles and waving confederate flags, an American mowed down by a white supremacist in a truck!? The images are horrific. The darkness is real and as it has been unleashed, it will continue to grow.

I believe that identifying darkness causes us to respond with activism.  When our President does not respond to the evil that is growing with a clear, unequivocal response, evil will grow.  When poisonous rhetoric threatens the fabric of our culture and community it must be denounced by every political, religious and communal leader.  As the leaders of the Orthodox Rabbinic Council of America wrote: “Failure to unequivocally reject racism and bias is a failure of moral leadership.”

If we re-wrote the Talmud to reflect our times, we would say that darkness stems because of hateful words and acts that grew and grew. Let’s allow the solar eclipse to stimulate the questions our ancestors raised: What is the darkness of our times?  Let’s allow that discussion to moves us to activism.

The religious call of this moment is to bring light to darkness.  Partially this is done through political activism, protests – praying with our feet.  I also believe it is achieved by coming together with the vast majority of our country who see America as a beacon of justice and equality that needs to be reclaimed.  Join us at Oshman Family JCC tomorrow evening between 5 and 7 – the whole purpose is for interfaith solidarity that reflects the words of this week’s haftarah: “You shall be established through righteousness.  You shall be safe from oppression, and shall have no fear.” Light will come from darkness. The marvels of nature connected to the eclipse will fill our souls.  We will use it as a catalyst to struggle with, and respond to the darkness of our times and in our own hearts.  I conclude once again with the words of Rabbi Nachman:

God of unfathomable goodness,
The history of human agony
Haunts my soul;
Ashes, blood, and cries
Pierce my heart;
Diabolic schemes of oppressors
Plague my mind.
Grant me an extra measure of
And faith
To help me find You –
To discover Your Light
Midst the blinding dread,
Through the revolting horror.
May we search for light and help to bring it into the world.

(Based on sermon by Rabbi Barry Katz, lesson by Rabbi Yitzchak Kowalsky and Rabbi Dovid Heber)