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Ancient Jewish wisdom on the solar eclipse

The sages found a message for humanity in the story of a competition between the sun and the moon
illustrative photo of a solar eclipse (CC-BY-sancho_panza, Wikimedia Commons)
illustrative photo of a solar eclipse (CC-BY-sancho_panza, Wikimedia Commons)

As most of us know quite well, on Monday there will be a rare event in our country: a total solar eclipse. In short, the moon will “photobomb” the sun’s selfie. I recently wrote an article in a book about creation that talked about the relationship between the sun and the moon. In chapter one of Genesis (verse 16) we read: “And God made two great lights; the large light to rule the day, and the small light to rule the night; and God made the stars.”

There seems to be a contradiction here. If God made two great lights, then how can one be large and one be small? Many Jewish commentators address this apparent irregularity. One comment from an ancient midrash sees a moral lesson within the disparity. The moon complained to God that it did not like being the same size as the sun, so God “rewarded” the moon’s complaint by making it smaller.

A more favorable treatment of the moon is found in Midrash Genesis Rabbah, 6:4: R. Aha said: Imagine a king who had two governors, one ruling in the city and the other in a province. Said the king: Since the former has humbled himself to rule in the city only, I decree that whenever he goes out, the city council and the people shall go out with him, and whenever he enters, the city council and the people shall enter with him. Thus did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: Since the moon humbled itself to rule by night, I decree that when she comes forth, the stars shall come forth with her, and when she goes in [disappears], the stars shall go in with her.

This teaching reflects an ancient rabbinic support for humility in our leaders. As another sage (Hillel) once observed: “When I exalt myself I am humbled, but when I humble myself I am exalted.” It is only when we create space for the world that we are able to find our genuine selves. The medieval mystical notion of tzimtzum, or contraction, by which God could create the world only by contracting God’s Self, teaches us the spiritual power of creating space within our own egos for the world around us. By letting go of some of the ego needs that distract us we open space for enjoying the present and being more present for others.

I know these days we can easily be frustrated, worried and even fearful. There are certainly many things we can do about our current situation. One thing we may not have considered is practicing more humility in our family, circle of friends, and areas of work. This practice will not solve all our problems but it can serve as a timely corrective in a world too eclipsed for the light to shine through.

About the Author
Edwin Goldberg is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago. He served as the coordinating editor of the new Reform Jewish machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, and has published many books in the field of Jewish texts and their application to the modern world. His most recent book is Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, a commentary on the new machzor. He holds a doctorate in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
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