True or False:
Monday President Trump will say something strange.
Monday the stock market will gain 100 points.
Monday the sun will take a nap in the middle of the day.
It is remarkable that we know with absolute certainty that this Monday, August 21, 2017, beginning at 1:05 pm till 4:10pm, the Sun will do an elaborate dance with the moon, slowly disappearing and reappearing in the afternoon sky. It will be the 1st total solar eclipse in America in 99 years and it should be spectacular—more so for those directly in the path just north of us. Nevertheless, we will experience 97% of it.
The big question in the Jewish world today is: should we make a b’rachawhen we see it? It’s a trick question because we’re not supposed to look directly at it lest our eyes burn up like the evil Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But let’s just say that you’re like me and intend to sneak a peek at the eclipse against medical advice, what b’racha should you say?
The answer according to all authorities is surprisingly: None! However, we make a b’racha for all kinds of physical phenomenon. For lightning we say:Baruch Ata Hashem Elokeynu Melech ha-olam, oseh maasey v’reyshit (Blessed are You Hashem, King of the Universe…Who makes the work of Creation). For thunder we say: Baruch…shekocho ugvurato maley olam (for His strength and His power fill the universe). For rainbows: Baruch…zocheyr habrit, v’ne-eman bivrito v’kayam b’ma-amaro (Who remembers the covenant, is trustworthy in his covenant and fulfills His word). There is also a b’racha for seeing a mountain, a cemetery, and an ocean.
So why not a b’racha on Monday for the solar eclipse? If you think that perhaps the ancient sages were not familiar with eclipses, listen to what the Talmud (Sukkah 29a) says: “When the sun becomes smitten (eclipsed) it is a bad omen for the whole world.” Apparently the Talmud agrees with ancient literature that an eclipse is a negative sign. For the ancients it was that the sun was damaged or hurt—that something was wrong, nature was misaligned. For us, we don’t make a b’racha on something negative.
The Greek historian, Herodotus (6th century BCE), recounts an epic battle between the Medes and the Lydians. Let me read it to you: War had already been raging for over 5 years and there was no end in sight. Just as the battle was growing warm, day was—all of a sudden—transformed into night…This event had been foretold by a certain man named Thebes, fixed to the very year…The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change in the heavens... immediately ceased fighting, and both armies were anxious to have terms of peace agreed upon right there.
It was a common belief in the ancient world that a solar eclipse portended tragedy and misfortune. In ancient China, it was believed that a fearsome celestial dragon was eating away the sun. The Vikings thought it was hungry wolves in the night sky. An African tribe believed that the sun and the moon were fighting a heavenly war with each other and so tribesman frantically prayed for a truce. The ancient Greeks believed a solar eclipse was a sign that the gods were angry at mankind and that it heralded disasters and destruction to come. In fact, the word “eclipse” comes from the Greek meaning, “abandonment”. Just as the sun abandons the world, leaving it consumed in darkness, so too, thought the Greeks, the gods had abandoned humanity.
It makes sense why such anxiety over the solar eclipse was a cross-cultural phenomenon in the ancient world. Experience told them that the sun—the source of light, warmth and energy—consistently rose every morning and set every evening. And so when suddenly the sun became blotted out of the midday sky, the ancients understandably assumed something terrible was about to happen.
So as the sun became totally eclipsed by the moon, the Medes and the Lydians lost the will to die on the battlefield. All they wanted was to put down their swords, return home and be with their families, bracing for the terrible events to come.
It is one thing for the Greeks and our sages to view an eclipse as an evil omen, but this is the 21st century and we understand the movement of the stars. Solar eclipses are, as we say in the blessing for lightning, maasey bereshit—naturally occurring, predictable celestial events that ought not be feared or infantilized. However, Moshe Feinstein, perhaps the greatest decisor of Jewish law of the 20th century, stated: “We should not make a b’racha for seeing an eclipse as it is a negative sign.”
I think that what Moshe Feinstein and the sages were getting at is that when Gd created the physical world, he encoded physical signs in His creation to guide us. After each day of creation, for example, the Torah tells us, “It was evening and it was morning day one…two…” Among other things it teaches us that no matter how dark the world will get for us, morning will follow with its light—a powerful lesson. After the flood of Noah Gd declared the rainbow as a physical sign that He will never again destroy our world.
And perhaps what Moshe Feinstein and most of our sages were saying about an eclipse being a bad omen is that the eclipse of the sun—the source of our light, warmth and energy—is a metaphor for an eclipse of Gd—the source of all life. During an eclipse it appears that the sun is gone, but it is not. It is actually still there—just hidden. Sometimes when life is dark and it appears that Gd has abandoned us (remember the word “eclipse” means abandon)…when it seems that there is an eclipse of Gd, never forget that Gd is always there—just hidden.
The famous “Footprints” story beautifully illustrates this:
One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with Gd. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed 2 sets of footprints in the sand; one belonged to him, and the other to Gd.
When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life.
This really tortured him and he questioned Gd about it. “Gd, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me, all the way, but I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most, you would leave me.”
Gd replied, “My precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”
When it seems as if there’s an eclipse of Gd in your life, it could be that He’s carrying you.
But there’s another side to an eclipse of Gd. Actions have consequences, and if we ignore Gd…if we don’t make Him a regular part of our lives…if we ignore His Torah…then He might ignore us. And that’s perhaps the worst thing that can happen to us for we then become so vulnerable. Like a parent who would say at times, “All right, if this is the way you want it. You told me to butt out of your life. Let’s see what happens when you’re on your own.” This is what the Torah (Deut. 31:17-18) calls a hesteyr panim (a hiding of Gd’s face).
Today’s Torah portion makes it clear: R’ey Anochi noteyn lifneychem hayom b’racha uklala (See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse). It’s up to us to choose a life of blessing! To a great extent, we can control the eclipses of Gd, the curses in our lives by attaching ourselves to Gd. When we look at the dark sky on a Monday afternoon—with our special glasses or not—let it sound an alarm in our hearts asking: Are we taking Gd’s sun—with the light, warmth and energy it brings—for granted? Do we hear the cries of Gd’s children who are in need? Are we kind, respectful, and appreciative? Are we living a life Gd would be proud of—following His ways?
The soldiers of the Medes and Lydians got it right. They saw the sun disappear and dropped their weapons on the battlefield. They suddenly realized that they were in the same sinking boat, living under the same vanishing sun. They realized that what united them was far greater than what divided them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if North Korea and Iran were similarly moved by Monday’s eclipse? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the neo-Nazis, Alt-Right, Antifa and Alt-Left groups were similarly moved? We can’t control their hearts but we can work on our own. Amen!