The Solar Eclipse: A Jewish Message
The connection between covering our eyes when we recite the Shema and when looking at the eclipse.
The world will soon be witness to one of the most spectacular events in the universe.
On August 21 the sky will suddenly go dark in the middle of the day. The temperature will noticeably drop by many degrees in a few short moments. Birds will stop chirping and flee back to their nests. And millions of Americans will gather under the heavens, from Oregon to South Carolina, to view the first total solar eclipse to cross America in many decades.
It is an awesome spectacle – and throughout history, in many eras and in countless cultures, its occurrence was fraught with fear and consternation. For those who lacked the scientific knowledge to understand the temporary darkness due to the coverage of the sun by the overlapping of the moon, superstition bred many myths and fanciful folklore. The very word eclipse comes to us by way of old French from the Greek for abandonment or forsaking – as if the sudden darkness expressed divine displeasure so severe that God chose to temporarily remove the gift of his presence.
How do Jewish sources view a solar eclipse?
At the very beginning of the Torah, Jewish biblical commentators find a direct allusion to the phenomenon of an eclipse: “And God said, ‘Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens … and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years’” (Genesis 1:14). What is the meaning of “for signs”? The classical commentary of Rashi tells us this refers to the times when the luminaries are eclipsed – and “this is an unfavorable omen for the world”!
Does that mean that we ought to now be very afraid?
Remarkably, Rashi concludes his commentary with a reference to words from the prophet Jeremiah: “… As it is said ‘And from the signs of the heaven be not dismayed, etc’ (Jeremiah 10:2) When you perform the will of the Holy One, blessed be He, you need not fear retribution.”
If an eclipse is a prediction of imminent divine punishment, as Rashi inferred from the verse, why would Rashi immediately negate that very idea with a quote advising us not to be dismayed or fearful of heavenly signs? The answer is profound and rooted in the supreme importance Jews attach to the concept of free will, the ability of mankind to directly affect their destiny by virtue of their self-chosen actions. The concept of Greek fate runs counter to Jewish thought; fate can be altered by faith. As the High Holy Day formula puts it, “Repentance, prayer, and charity override the evil decree.”
It's a moment that reminds us of God’s awesome power and goodness.
An eclipse may be an omen but it is not a verdict or a final judgment. It is a moment in time which serves as a reminder of God’s awesome power and goodness. Without the benefit of the sun, its light, its warmth, its power, its energy and its role in the solar system, we could not survive for a moment. That is why, with infinite wisdom and at preordained times on the calendar, God removes us from its rays for the briefest of times so that we might reflect on the miracle of its otherwise constant presence which we so readily take for granted. It is that which the Torah refers to as “a sign.”
A sign asks us to take note. It has a message. Fail to heed it and suffer the consequences reserved for those who take God’s gifts which make life possible for granted. It is not hard to believe that the Creator of the universe built signposts predicated on natural law as ongoing reminders for mankind.
The awesome message of an eclipse and its meaning for us has a remarkable parallel to a universal Jewish custom.
It is extremely important, NASA and other experts tell us, that we cover our eyes and not look directly at the sun when it happens. Failure to heed this counsel could lead to blindness. I cannot help but think of the very same admonition to cover our eyes when we recite the Shema. At the moment when we contemplate God’s uniqueness and greatness we indicate that His splendor is beyond the capacity of our vision; to think we truly see His essence with the limited perspective of our eyes is to be blind to the reality of His infinite magnificence.
The eclipse reminds us of a universe so much vaster than our ability to fully comprehend. Don't fear it, rather welcome it as a sign, as the Psalmist King David reminded us, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork”(Psalms 19:1).