Rabbi’s Weekly Message

Rabbi’s Message, March 28, 2024

Bless My Eyes, To See with Wonder

Illustration: Path of the April 8, 2024 total solar eclipse


            Americans and Canadians are gearing up for a total eclipse of the sun. Some of our own congregants are preparing to travel to Texas to experience that rare occurrence; others of our members, living in Canada in the path of the totality, are expecting half a million visitors to overwhelm their city of 100,000.
            When I was young, our primary school textbooks used solar eclipses to indoctrinate us in the dogma of the superiority of the western, scientific outlook to those of the pre-modern and indigenous peoples’ worldview.  We were taught that Christopher Columbus--- then considered a hero-- overawed the Natives in the Indies by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse. We were confident in the self-congratulatory knowledge that the members of non-western cultures were ignorant, their view of the natural world deformed by superstition. 
            Solar eclipses were Exhibit A for the prosecution. Non-westerners and Pre-moderns were filled with dread during solar eclipses because they believed that the sun, so essential for all of life, was actually being devoured by some malevolent entity.  They would make noise to scare away the threat to their well-being. In Choctaw culture, it was a giant black squirrel attacking the sun. The Ancient Chinese believed that a dragon was the sun’s antagonist.
            We, by happy contrast, were safe and secure in the knowledge that a solar eclipse was fully explained by science, and that it represented no threat at all to anyone’s well-being--- unless you looked at the sun without proper safeguards. Many housewives in our “enlightened” society got the wrong memo—sure that there was danger and not sure how far it extended, they kept their children indoors during a solar eclipse to prevent us from going blind. In school, we were given a graceful way to overcome the ignorance of our mothers: We were instructed to bring shoeboxes to class and embarked on construction projects. We made pinhole observatories using those shoeboxes, so that we could safely face away from the sun and track its shadow.
            I am grateful for the life-enhancing blessings of modern science, for the ability to produce food beyond subsistence levels, for modern medicine, and all the other technological aids in mastering our environment. But today, we are increasingly aware of the hidden costs of this progress. 
            One of those costs is the “disenchantment of the world.” If the world is just a “thing”, do we not sense what we have lost?
            Well, what is the world, if not a thing? Would you want to go back to the demon-haunted cosmos of our ancestors?
            But this is a false dichotomy. The alternatives are not only soulless science versus superstitious spiritualism. As you might expect me to say, Judaism has long grappled with these thoughts and given us much sane and profound wisdom. The world is good, because God has judged it good. We are obliged to care for it, because God has ennobled us with the intelligence to be a partner in the work of creation. Understanding need not crush spirit. Understanding can enable us to be our best selves and at the same time be good for the world.
            In the Talmud, discussing whether solar eclipses are omens of ill, Rabbi Yohanan proclaimed “Eyn mazal l’yisrael”—“The people Israel are not governed by astrological constellations”  (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 156a). We have had eras where folk beliefs resisted that high-brow teaching, but it is a good insight to internalize. The world can be understood – at least in its physical aspect—by an embrace of the scientific viewpoint.
            But there is more.  Science has its proper domain, and it is unrivalled in its ability to explain phenomena within that domain.  But that domain is not all there is to know. Once we articulate the proper relationship of faith and reason, we can see that they are meant to be partners, not rivals.
            What does religion do, that is the ally, not the rival, of a true scientific spirit?
            Mature Religion—like the best impulse within Science—appreciates Wonder. “Lift up your eyes and behold: Who made this?” sang the prophet Isaiah (40-:26).
            Judaism teaches us to behold the phenomena of Nature with wonder, with awe. And our proper response is to utter blessing.

Illustration: Solar eclipse, displaying the solar corona, August 2017. Photo Credit: Joseph Forzano/ The Palm Beach Post/ USA TODAY NETWORK
            When you see the eclipse (with proper safeguards, of course!) I hope you will be motivated to recite any or all of these words from our Tradition:
            The Heavens tell God’s glory
                        God’s handiwork—sky declares. (Psalm 19:2)
            When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers
                        The moon and the stars You fixed firm,--
            “What is the human that You should take note of him,
                        Mortal humans, that You pay heed? (Psalm 8:4-5)
            “Blessed are You, O LORD, Creator of the celestial lights.” (Morning liturgy)
            In our weekly Torah portion, we receive a hint of these inducements to embrace Wonder in the face of the cosmos.  The passage is a set of technical instructions to the priests as to the maintenance of the altar on which they offer the sacrifices that constituted worship in those days. The Bible instructs: “The fire on the altar shall keep burning on it, it shall not go out…” (Leviticus 6:5)
            I have often interpreted those words to suggest something beyond the literal and technical meaning of the words. Maybe the fire is the fire of religious commitment? Maybe the fire is the illuminating light of the intellectual quest for the meaning of it all?
            This year, with the eclipse soon upon us, I offer an additional supplemental interpretation of these words: Let the flame of our sense of wonder not be extinguished.  For Wonder leads not only to curiosity, but also to appreciation. Wonder, channeled by spirituality, can lead us to utter blessing, and more: to become forces for blessing.  The world needs that so desperately right now. Let us be blessings. Amen.