This past week has been frightening and frustrating for so many of us. There have been many official pronouncements condemning the violence and malevolence of the hateful white racists, and the neo-Nazis. And, just when one thought the chief executive in the White House could not make matters even worse, on Tuesday he did. It will come as no surprise that I completely denounce his portrayal of these racists as some very good people. And I know that our hearts go out to the congregants of Charlottesville, who were abandoned by the police and left to their own defenses in the face of an old but not forgotten foe.
But I also want these days ahead to be a time to consider the upcoming natural phenomenon of the total solar eclipse. In olden days, a sudden darkness portended some kind of omen. These days our science gives us a rational explanation. And yet I want to share some ancient wisdom that might give us a little boost, a little guidance, in these difficult days.
As most of us know quite well, this 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 can 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. As a congregation, some of these will be addressed in the days ahead. 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. These days call for fortitude and moral courage, a willingness to tell the darkness that we beg to differ.
Rabbi Edwin Goldberg