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. Shakespeare describes an eclipse as a “stain on the sun that portended no good.” 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 must have been 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?
Times have changed. This weekend, millions of people across the U.S. 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 Idaho, many will witness what will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.
I share the wonder. I don’t believe in the kind of God who makes everything happen for a reason, micromanaging the Creation with divine signs and portents. 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.
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Yet I am convinced that with a bit of post-modern interpretation, Talmud still has something significant to teach us on these matters. My conviction that eclipses are not sent as inherently purposeful messages from an omnipotent deity need not leave them absent of moral significance. As fundamentally meaning-making creatures, we human beings are strongly inclined to find our own purposes in events after the fact. This eclipse might still serve as a powerful sign for humanity if that’s how we consciously choose to understand it.
How, then, might we interpret both the fear and wonder of this week’s solar eclipse in a contemporary context?
I suggest we take it as a call to action on climate change. On Monday, Aug. 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. Let this awesome event serve as a reminder that unless we change our behavior as a species, in the future, we may not be so lucky. The damage that we are doing to our planet — and our own civilization — with our profligate devastation of Earth’s natural systems is not so easily undone. May the temporary eclipse of the sun awaken us to the wisdom of philosopher and naturalist Kathleen Dean Moore: “To let the world slip away — the starfish and sea anemones, the green and fecund marshland, the glacial streams — to let it slip away because we’re too busy, or too comfortable to change, is a sin against creation.”
Now is the time for turning, in action and in prayer. Let us conclude with the words of poet Daniel Landinsky, inspired by the work of Persian Sufi mystic Hafiz:
All this time
The sun never says to the earth,
With a love like that,
It lights the
Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.