On April 17, 1912, a total Solar Eclipse took place in the sea between Spain and France. It was visible as a partial eclipse across much of the rest of Europe and Asia. Wikipedia preserves an editorial published in a newspaper in Lisbon, Portugal, that described the event as follows:
While some, strong spirits, point out..how precise are scientific calculi, the others, believers, consider that what we can grasp is still too little and, not being able to conceive a Creation without a Creator, pay homage to science but continue to kneel before God. The reader can judge the interest that the phenomenon sparked among us by himself though the photographs that follow, where one can see it all; the wise and the godless, the noble and the commoners, women and men, everyone paid no attention to earthly matters and, for a moment, observed with better or worse instruments what was going on up above.
Indeed, hundreds of miles from Lisbon, reports from Radun, now in Belarus, tell us that Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, who, known as the Chofetz Chaim, among the most significant and revered rabbinical figures of the 20th century, was immensely excited about the eclipse. The Chofetz Chaim urged all of his followers to observe the eclipse because he saw it as a public demonstration that the sun itself is also a creation, and that, therefore, it highlighted the supreme majesty of God.
In light of all this, it is striking because Rabbi Kagan also knew well that, according to the Talmud, a solar eclipse is a bad omen. Among other things it was seen as a Divine warning to the Jewish people that they were not maintaining the proper respect for Torah scholars and Jewish leaders and allowing their radiance to be, well, eclipsed. There is no blessing in the Jewish tradition to recite when observing an eclipse, and that is one reason why. It is a warning, directed squarely at us.
But this is difficult to understand. Solar eclipses are the result of the motions of the earth, moon, and sun, and those can be calculated accurately for years and even centuries into the future. In fact, if you visit the NASA website after Shabbat, you will see statistics for all 11,898 solar eclipses that have happened since the year 2000 BCE through the year 3000. Is our tradition really telling us that God knew, thousands of years in advance, that we would need to be reminded about respecting Torah scholars this coming Monday? Or on July 2, 2019? Or December 26, 2038?
Some would simply answer, yes. They would say that God is omniscient, God knows everything, and therefore God, from the very beginning, calibrated the natural order to ensure we would receive certain signs and particular omens just when they were most needed.
I will suggest, though, that the Chofetz Chaim’s example teaches us a different lesson, which is that even if it teaches us something, it’s not always all about us. It is always good to reflect upon our personal behavior and our communal culture. It is helpful that there are natural phenomena that can remind us, from time to time, to look more closely at ourselves. But it is also important sometimes to think about those things later, and in the moment, to just stop and experience something truly majestic. It is important sometimes to not think about ourselves at all, and to let ourselves be overwhelmed by something tremendous and powerful that fills us with awe and with wonder.
The great Jewish mystics spoke of the moving of the celestial bodies as the music of the universe, the great song of the cosmos in praise of God. And that brings us back to the music we experiencing in this sanctuary, particularly during a Shabbat Chazanut like this morning, but also on a week to week basis. We typically look to the teachings of our tradition to tell us what to do, and we typically come together in prayer to reflect on ourselves and our needs. But it’s not often in life to have the opportunity to simply be overwhelmed by a moment of majesty, to be fully enveloped in an atmosphere of awe and reverence. We have that opportunity this morning – let’s take advantage of something truly special.
Delivered Shabbat, August 12
The Hampton Synagogue