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A Jewish Perspective on the Solar Eclipse

Posted on August 17, 2017 by Cantor Seth Warner

This document was heavily adapted from Roger Price, in the Jewish Journal  (August 9, 2017)

We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the earth and the moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the moon travels between the earth and the sun in such a way as to block the light of the sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. This is a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the earth and the temperature drops.

You might think that this is the perfect occasion for a blessing. After all, we seemingly have blessings for everything. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, one you might say: Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation.

When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, you might say: Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the universe, that such things exist in the world. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why?

The sages of the Talmud state:

When the luminaries are stricken, it is an ill omen for the world. To what can we compare this? To a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and set a lantern to illuminate the hall. But then he became angry with them and said to his servant: “Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.”

The Talmud describes the particular sins for which the luminaries are “stricken.” An eclipse is seen as a bad omen for the world – a sign of bad things to come.

But we understand the science of skies a lot better than our sages of yesteryear. We understand that this eclipse is a phenomenon entirely the product of natural forces and purely scientific. Instead of bad of omen, we understand this scientific and astronomical event as something to behold and to appreciate.

A total eclipse of the sun is no less impressive than is lightening or an earthquake, and surely less destructive than the latter.  With an orientation of modern, reality-based Judaism, we can and should appreciate the order in the cosmos, especially the regularity of orbits. We can and should recognize the total dependence of all life as we know it on the energy that we receive from our local star. As the umbra approaches and recedes in a total solar eclipse, we can see the light change and sense the drop in temperature. Even as it compels us to look to the sky, that sight, that feeling should unite us, and draw our attention away, if just momentarily, from the troubles on Earth.

All of this elicits awe and gratitude, two primary bases for blessings. How appropriate then, as one looks (very carefully and with appropriate equipment) upward during a solar eclipse to acknowledge one’s awe and express one’s gratitude for having reached this season and being able to observe and to feel the works of creation. Here is one way:

As the eclipse nears . . . Baruch Atah Adonai – Blessed is the Source of Life that fashioned the stars, that sends forth heat from the Sun to warm us and light from the Sun to nourish the food we eat and provide the wonderful colors that so enrich our lives.

When standing in the shadow . . . Modim Anachnu Lakh – We are thankful for the opportunity to be reminded how fleeting and precious our time here is, how bound we are, one to the other, how much we should treasure the moments we have and the people with whom we share this most amazing planet.

As light reemerges . . . Baruch Atah – Blessed is the Sustainer of Life. May we be refreshed and renewed by the harmony of the spheres, and may our lives be worthy of the gift we have received and continue to receive through the arrangement of the cosmos.

Your words may well be different. Write them. Share them. We do need blessings now.

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