What does it mean to live in a world where we teach that all human beings are made in the image of God (בצלם אלהים b’tzelem Elohim)? How can we take responsibility for our actions? What are the consequences of turning aside from injustice? If all are equal, what does this mean when power is accrued by the few? How is it that expressions of evil become manifest in every age – and what are the means to create a better world? In short, how do we build a moral society and be inspired us to be pursuers of justice, truth and peace?
In this blog I will offer musings on the intersection between Jewish tradition and the pressing issues of our time. I hope you find it interesting and that it pushes you to ask important questions of your self, community, faith and country.
Its title comes from the first thing God does in the book of Genesis – a paradigm, I will argue, for our task in this world.
Our Rabbis taught, “When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world.” Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 29a
A solar eclipse is a wondrous and rare phenomenon in the universe. Few planets have moons just the right size and so perfectly aligned equidistant from their sun to afford the wonder we see here on earth. A solar eclipse only appears rarely in any one place, but over the whole globe it comes regularly enough to afford millions the opportunity to witness this marvelous sight.
Today we are excited and amazed by a solar eclipse – and I’m disappointed that I won’t be where I can see the eclipse this coming Monday. In earlier times, however, an eclipse – unannounced, seemingly random and terrifying in its ability to turn day into night – was a sign of terror. In fact, the Hebrew word for eclipse is ליקוי likui, which literally translates as “defect”. No wonder the rabbis of the Talmud saw an eclipse as an ill tiding.
The last time a total solar eclipse crossed the entire continental United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, was on June 8, 1918. It was in the final days of the First World War, the “Great War” that brought such wrack and ruin, destroyed the naïve fallacy that modern nations had created international structures to prevent large scale conflict and sowed the seeds that led to an even more devastating war twenty years later.
Of course, it is hubris to think the universe is swayed by our moral behavior, but maybe – in this time of strife in our land – it is worth paying attention to any reminder to be more decent. It feels like more than a coincidence we are living through a time when tolerance and peace are being eclipsed by a rising tide of racism, hatred, antisemitism and bigotry. As the solar eclipse speeds across the United States, I hope it does raise within all who see it a moral quandary: Is the darkness I see in this country what I want? How can I not allow my fears to overwhelm my capacity to act with decency? What will I do to help this darkness pass?
Although the Talmudic sages saw a solar eclipse as a “bad omen”, they also understood that there is something greater than what we see in the planets and stars – our own moral choices. Thus, in the same passage quoted above they also added, “When Israel fulfills God’s will, they need have no fear of all these [omens] as it is said: Thus says God, ‘Do not … be dismayed at the signs of heaven.” (Jeremiah 10:2)
As terrifying as a solar eclipse – or societal moral deficit – may seem, it will pass if each of us does what is right and learns that the greatest light comes from within.