Have you gotten your official eclipse-viewing gear yet?
Call it free celestial entertainment. That is how the New York Times described a solar eclipse in 1925 – as “the most magnificent free show nature presents to man.” That show is coming, again, on Monday. But, for our ancestors, an eclipse was not a show. It was a cosmic event.
Kings trembled when they saw an eclipse. In the Bible, King Hezekiah was on his death bed. He prayed for healing – and as a sign that he would be healed of his illness, God sent a sign, in the form of a shadow that fell upon his house. Astronomers know that on March 7, in 702 BCE, which was sixteen years before the king died, there was a solar eclipse throughout the entire Middle East.
Hezekiah was lucky. Other kings weren’t. The son of Charlemagne, Louis, most likely died during the eclipse of May 5, 840. The French king, Louis XIV, the “sun king” who chose the sun as his emblem, ironically died right after an eclipse. No wonder that Shakespeare thought that an eclipse was a “stain on the sun that portended no good.”
Likewise, our Jewish ancestors were afraid of eclipses. The sages of the Talmud were sure that it was human behavior –human sinfulness, to be exact – that caused eclipses. Talmud teaches: “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world. “ This is not surprising. Nearly every ancient tradition shared this view.
The English word “eclipse” comes from the Greek, “ekleipsi,” which implies, at its root, abandonment. In a prescientific world, the sun’s unexpected diminishment and even disappearance was utterly terrifying. Without its light and heat, the earth would be a lifeless, frozen hunk of rock. What could be more traumatic than the sun’s abandonment? Just ask the animals who all freak out when in their daily cycle of the sun, the world goes dark. Everyone and everything is impacted.
And yet, this Monday, millions of people across the US will go significantly out of their way to view the Great American Eclipse. As writer Ross Andersen notes: “The primary emotion most of us now feel upon glimpsing an eclipse is wonder.” The moon, which is, amazingly, both 400 times smaller than the sun and also 400 times closer to earth, perfectly blocks the sun, so day turns to night and the sun’s corona glitters in the darkened sky. Here in Bellevue, many will witness what will be a once-in-a-lifetime event as 91.6% of the sun is darkened.
I share the wonder. I believe that eclipses are not omens in response to our sins; they are entirely predictable and will occur whether we are sinful or saintly. Like other celestial mechanics, they are, in fact, powerful reminders that we human beings are not the center of the universe.
But what is it about eclipses that captures our imagination?
As we sung tonight …
Roll into dark … Roll into light
Night becomes day … Day turns to night
Borei yom va-laila
Goleil or mip-nei cho-shech
Goleil or mip-nei cho-shech
V’cho-shech mip-nei or
In his book A Rumor of Angels, Peter Berger writes of the child who wakes up in the middle of a nightmare. His mother runs to comfort him. “There, there. There, there. Everything will be alright.” Berger asks the question: Can she really be sure that everything is going to be alright? Or is that statement an act of faith? It is an act of faith because it is a faith in the unseen. To enter the night is an act of faith. Which brings us to God. It is the power and awesomeness of the Holy and Blessed One who guides us through the darkness into the light. It is God in whom the rabbis of old put their trust and it is God whom we need today.
There is a deep darkness in the world today. It is deeper than the longest eclipse. This past week, we were forced to remember that. All of us were assaulted by the sounds and images of torches lighting up the darkness in Charlottesville. No matter how many torches filled the screens, the darkness has become overwhelming. Many of you have posted, commented, or written about the reemergence of historical trauma. What we saw awakened long repressed memories and brought palpable darkness into the world in which we dwell.
The great theologian Martin Buber once taught – that there are times when God is hiding the divine face; that God, like a divine parent, plays peek-a-boo with the world; that we are living through a time of the eclipse of God.
It is a biblical idea that first makes its appearance in Deuteronomy. The prophet Isaiah understood it: “You are a God Who conceals himself!” the prophet exclaims. (Isaiah 45:15)
Just as all the creatures of this earth fear the disappearance of the sun, we fear the disappearance or quieting of God. Yes, God is there, but we are not feeling it.
During the Shoah, a Jew in Cologne wrote these words on a cellar wall:
I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when He is silent.
But, Oh, how challenging this thought is. Belief in the rising of the sun in the midst of tangible darkness, belief in the Divine voice in the midst of silence. And yet, that is what we must do tonight. We must embrace the light, not the light of tiki torches waved in anger, but the light of faith raised in solidarity with one another.
First we have to own our feelings. Revulsion. Sadness. Fear. Anger. Emptiness. All these have cycled through the thoughts of caring people all week long. Mostly because these forces of hate have been in this country for a long time but they have been quiet, suppressed and kept away from the main streets of our towns.
Don’t hide Your face from me
I’m asking for Your help.
I call to You;
Please hear my prayers, O God.
If You would answer me
As I have called to You,
Please heal me now,
Don’t hide Your face from me.
Anti-Semitism in America must be combatted, denounced, exposed and despised by all who hope for an America which stand by the values upon which this country was founded. We are not perfect for sure, but we must stand together in opposition to darkness … to evil.
Leon Weiseltier wrote this week that all Jews should respond to this darkness by offering and displaying our solidarity to each other and to those groups in this country who really are threatened by the images and words spewed by those promoting hate. Who were the targets? Jews, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, Hispanics and the LGBTQ community. Whether or not there is a special Jewish obligation, there is a universal moral obligation. We are human beings.
The struggle for moral, social and communal progress is unceasing. We have an obligation to keep a light burning. We cannot give up our light to the darkness that threatens our very being. We are the instruments of Divine light.
I want to conclude with some words of my dear friend Rabbi Dan Fink from Boise Idaho.
On Monday, August 21 – or, by the Jewish calendar, the eve of Rosh Chodesh Elul, a month devoted to reflection and repentance—the source of life on earth will, for a moment or two, go dark, from coast to coast across the world’s most powerful nation. And then, just as scientifically predictably—and, at the same time, still miraculously—the light and warmth that sustain us will return.
Tonight, we must reclaim the light. We join with congregations all over the world who use light as the symbol of hope. As we pass out candles to each of you, let us light these lights and reclaim the power of light. Let us turn the tiki torches of hate into the blessed light of hope and bring healing and wholeness to our world.
(Light the candles)