Sunday, August 20, 2017

Thoughts on the Solar Eclipse

On Monday, August 21, 2017, a solar eclipse will be visible to one degree or another across the entire continental United States. During a total solar eclipse, the moon passes between the Earth and the Sun, blocking our view of it. The Sun is 400 times the size of the moon, but the tiny moon is able to block our view of the much larger sun because the moon is much closer to us. Those who are in the path of totality and see the sun completely blocked by the moon are overwhelmed by the experience.

Life is like that too. Sometimes, dark things come up in our lives, and we are overwhelmed by them. The bad things seem enormous, insurmountable, but this is only an illusion caused by the fact that the bad things are so close to us. We must remember that the good things are still out there, perhaps at a distance for now but much bigger and more important than any of the small bad things temporarily block our view. If we look carefully, we can see the good things still out there, peeking out around the edges of the bad things, reminding us that they are still there waiting for us. The bad things will pass in time, but the good things will always be there for us, and will come shining through when the bad things pass.

Is this what the rabbis said about eclipses? Not in so many words, but I think it may be what they meant. The most commonly quoted passage is a parable from the Babylonian Talmud, Succah 29a, which says that an eclipse can be compared to a king who made a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant, "Take away the lantern from before them, and place them in darkness!"

So did  the rabbis think that solar eclipses were a random event signalling Divine anger at humanity? Clearly not, because the rabbis of that time knew astronomy well enough to create a mathematically calculated calendar that was literally 100 times more accurate than the one used by the Romans at the same time (the Julian calendar was off by about 6 hours a year, while the Hebrew calendar is off by less than 90 minutes in a 19 year cycle). I think the passage is an analogy similar to the one I made above: When the Divine is unhappy with us, the good things in our life are hidden from us and we are left in darkness. But the lantern is never extinguished, only removed, and the light will come back at the proper time.