Jonathan Berkun
Rabbi of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, Miami FL

A Total Moral Eclipse

When my sons returned home from summer camp last month, I was pleasantly surprised that they brought back almost everything we sent with them. They even brought back some things I wish they had forgotten and left at camp.

One item that didn’t make it home was my younger son’s prescription sunglasses. At some point in the summer, they fell out of his pocket, never to be found again. Any other summer, not having prescription sunglasses for a few weeks would be no cause for alarm. But this summer on August 21st, the United States will bear witness to its first coast-to coast total solar eclipse since the year 1918.

This rare phenomenon in which the moon will perfectly obscure the sun and darken the sky in the middle of the day will sweep the nation from Oregon to South Carolina. On Monday, the sun will do something that it has not done over America in nearly a century. And my poor son might be stuck without a pair of sunglasses with which to see it.

But don’t worry, my son. The next one will be on August 12, 2045, and your new sunglasses are bound to arrive before then.

Perhaps it is no celestial accident that in the days before the total eclipse of the sun over the totality of the United States, we read parashat Re’eh, meaning “look,” or “see.” The Torah portion begins: Re’eh anochi noten lifnechem hayom beracha uklalah. “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 11:26). This week, we are commanded to see. And what we must see is the difference between a blessing and a curse, between good and evil, between right and wrong.

In the Torah, sometimes seeing is taken literally; to look with your eyes, to see the physical nature of that which is in front of you. But often, it means to see with your mind, heart and soul. In the Torah, “to see” is “to understand.”

When Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Book of Genesis, we read: vatipachna einei sh’neihem vayeid’oo ki arumim hem, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they understood that they were naked” (Genesis 3:7). Before Adam and Eve had knowledge, they could not see that they were without clothes. It was only after they ate the wisdom bearing fruit that they had the ability to see.

Last week in America, a kind of eclipse has already occurred—a moral one. Although we have all seen it with our eyes in the horrifying images in the news, the Torah demands that we understand it with our minds, hearts and souls. Only then will we be able to distinguish a blessing from a curse, good from evil, and right from wrong.

Last Shabbat in Charlottesville, the forces of darkness obscured the forces of light. Racists, bigots and anti-Semites cast a long and ominous shadow over our entire nation. Like an eclipse, it was a dangerous phenomenon of darkness, something we must see clearly and not avert our eyes.

How apropos that in 1979, Ernie Wright, who now creates visualizations and eclipse maps for NASA, wrote the following at age 16 after witnessing a total solar eclipse in Winnipeg with his father. Standing in awe at the blacked-out sun, he wrote: “Where you think you lived doesn’t look like the same place anymore.”

Well, the eclipse must have already happened, because the place where I think I live doesn’t look like the same place anymore.

I thought I lived in a nation where Nazis, white supremacists, and members of the KKK don’t march in droves, carrying torches, proudly chanting Nazi slogans and shouting “Jews will not replace us.” I thought I lived in a place where I don’t have to state the obvious: that these groups are uniquely evil and categorically antithetical to everything for which America stands.

I thought I lived in a place where those who remember flags with swastikas waving publicly and unabashedly are aging into their 90’s, not young children in the year 2017. I thought I lived in a place where hateful extremists and violent murderers are universally and clearly condemned across the spectrum by religious, business, and political leaders. I thought I lived in a place where diversity, inclusion, multi-culturalism, acceptance, tolerance, dignity and respect were paramount.

I don’t recognize the country in which I was born. It has been eclipsed.

This week, when the Torah commands us to see, we must see what is happening in our nation with moral clarity. First of all, “nice people” don’t march with Nazis. Second, equating the behavior of Nazis, white supremacists, and members of the KKK with those who oppose and protest them is a morally bankrupt equivocation that cannot stand unchallenged. Finally, the debate over the removal of Confederate monuments is a separate issue altogether. That debate must not distract us from our primary need to see, understand and identify evil when it appears, call it out when it darkens our nation, and resolve to condemn, reject and oppose it wherever it occurs.

I never imagined I would see such darkness in my lifetime. I never imagined that my rabbinate would require me to oppose and speak out against real, live Nazis. I never imagined that my children would grow up in the United States of America in a time when this is even a question for debate.

As Jews, it is hard for me to imagine that we are divided on this. But if we are, I urge you to see what I believe is a clear moral line in the sand. Open not only your eyes, but your mind, heart and soul. Do not avert your eyes from the darkness that eclipsed America this past week. Hold in your memory the lives of Heather Heyer and Virginia State Troopers, Lt. H. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke M.M. Bates. For them and their families, this is not simply a moral exercise; for us, then, it must be a moral imperative.

I am saddened by the fact that there appear to be many sides, many sides to this story. But I believe the time has come for us to pick one, regardless of our political leanings or opinions. The time has come for us to look through a clear, moral lens; to open our eyes, minds, hearts and souls; to see the distinction between blessing and curse, good and evil, right and wrong.

Darkness has eclipsed America this past week. And I pray that people of good will, patriots who love this country and lead this country, will soon see the light.

About the Author
Jonathan Berkun is the senior rabbi of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in Miami, past-President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He was raised in his father's synagogue, Tree of Life Congregation of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh.