Five Elul Lessons From the Eclipse

By this writing, everyone has either watched the eclipse or avoided doing so. We certainly hope that those who did took the appropriate precautions. Hundreds of ophthalmologists and opticians issued warnings until the very last moments before the great event not to look even for a split second without the requisite protective glasses. They reminded us that the danger is that one will not notice the catastrophic damage being done to the eye until it is tragically too late. This leads us to the first of our lessons from the eclipse:

 

1

 

When we look at what is forbidden to us, the injury is not felt immediately. In fact, our powers of rationalization will make it seem pleasant and innocent enough. In the long run, however, we have been forever changed for the worse. The Chazon Ish was known to have taught that one moment’s lack of shemiras einayim can take a lifetime to repair, if even that will be sufficient (see also Reishis Chochmah, Shaar Hakedusha, chapter 8).

 

2

 

Take nothing for granted. Hashem created for us a wonderful universe. “He Who proclaimed the generations from the beginning” (Yeshaya 41:4) decided the exact moments when the sun would be completely or partially covered so that day would turn into night. We may feel for years that we can expect the sun to rise in the east in the morning and set in the west at the end of the day, having provided its shining light the entire day. With the exception of a cloudy or rainy day, we think that we can count on the sun to be there for us. However, all of a sudden, one day it is not. The air grows cold, the birds fly away, and there is both beauty and fear in the air. This day was not like the one before, and we abruptly realize that we must give thanks to the Creator for every single day, just as we must thank Him for every single breath (Bereishis Rabbah 14:9). Furthermore, the baalei mussar (see the new volume of Ohel Moshe, Elul, page 434) caution us that when things are going well, boruch Hashem, we are lulled into the complacency of thinking that each new year will be just like the one before. Along comes Elul to remind us that there is a totally new verdict arriving soon. We dare not rest upon our laurels, impressive though they may have been. This year, the blotting out of sunlight, our sudden deprivation of daylight and even day itself, is a stark awakening to the need to live in the moment. How am I doing right now? What I have accomplished recently? How will I justify my existence this year? The precipitous darkness alerts us to the fragility of life itself. The abrupt advent of serious illness, or financial or family distress, Rachmana litzlan, can disrupt placid lives in a moment. The eclipse this year is our Elul reminder to vigilantly be our best – and even better – regardless of our past experience. The Alter of Kelm (Kisvei, Yomim Noraim, page 30) taught that the main avodah of Elul is to emerge from the mindset that the novi (Yeshaya 29:13-14) depicts so vividly as “this people…with its mouth and with its lips it has honored Me, yet it has distanced its heart from Me.” He explains that this is the danger of hergel, growing accustomed to a situation without realizing that it can or must change. Since things can change drastically in a moment, we must anticipate the imminent arrival of a new year and revitalize ourselves spiritually as well. This is the lesson of the eclipse and our mandate for Elul.

 

3

 

Although the consensus of poskim is not to make a bracha on an eclipse (see Shaar Ha’ayin, page 77, that Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner zt”l was uncertain whether or not to make a bracha, but all other poskim hold that one should not), nevertheless, many people erupted spontaneously in pesukim such as the one quoted in last week’s perek in Pirkei Avos (6:10): “How abundant are Your works, Hashem, with wisdom You made them all” (Tehillim 104:24). Others recited one of Rav Mordechai Gifter’s favorite pesukim, “Raise your eyes on high and see Who created these [things]” (Yeshaya 40:26). Still others evoked the more familiar verse from the Shabbos davening: “The heavens declare the glory of Hashem and the expanse of the sky tells of his handiwork” (Tehillim 19:2).

 

Even a secular scientist and self-professed eclipse chaser admitted that when she experienced her first eclipse, she “felt [she] had witnessed a miracle” (New York Times Sunday Review, page 2).

 

A thousand years ago, Rabbeinu Bachya (Chovos Halevavos, Cheshbon Hanefesh 3:23) already referred to an eclipse as one of the niflaos haBorei, amazing wonders Hashem has granted us.

 

This relatively rare phenomenon should help remind us of Hashem’s greatness and the never-ending majesty of His creation. Elul and Rosh Hashanah represent the days when Hashem created the world. He began on the 25th of Elul and created man on the last day, the Friday of creation, which became our Day of Judgment, Rosh Hashanah. If we use the eclipse to help us reflect upon Hashem’s infinite grandeur, we will approach the world of Malchiyos – the appreciation of Hashem’s monarchy – with the proper awe and deference required for the Yomim Noraim period.

 

4

 

Speaking of the eclipse chasers, it is worth taking a lesson from these diehards who journeyed to Mexico, Turkey, the Galapagos Islands, Greece, Siberia, China, Easter Island and Australia just in the last 26 years not to miss a single eclipse. In fact, some of them “have planned no major vacation that didn’t involve a total solar eclipse” (New York Times). This single-minded devotion to what seems to be an irrational pursuit should inspire us to a similar if not greater dedication to Torah, mitzvos and, in this season, teshuvah, for these actions yield eternal rewards and their results are indeed infinite, not momentary thrills that must be repeated regularly in order to have ongoing meaning. Some of the eclipse chasers may be a bit obsessed with their avocation, but we can learn from them to be equally persistent in our avodas Hashem.

 

5

 

There is a famous question that is directed at the statement of Chazal (Sukkah 29a) that a solar eclipse represents a siman ra, a bad sign for the world, and it comes because of various sins. Rav Yaakov Ettlinger (Aruch Laner, Sukkah, page 152) interprets the issue this way: “Those who disdain the words of Chazal cast aspersions on their teachings by claiming that the rabbis did not understand that phenomena such as eclipses can be predicted and occur at regular intervals.” He explains that scientists and those who distort the words of our sages claim that “bad signs” and attributions to certain sins are incompatible with events that can be predicted with mathematical precision. “However,” he goes on, “it is Chazal’s detractors who were stricken with blindness. The rabbis chose their words very carefully… Each of their statements about an eclipse begins with the phrase ‘at the time.’ This means that despite the predictability of this event, the rabbis understood from their knowledge of the secrets of the universe that an eclipse ushers in a period of din, intense and rigorous judgment. For, indeed, time can be categorized as good or bad. The eclipse is one factor in creating a time of danger.”

 

Rav Ettlinger is revealing to us an aspect of the eclipse that we can understand much more clearly in our day. It is now well-known that Albert Einstein used two eclipses that occurred during his lifetime to help prove one aspect of his theory of relativity. Part of his theorem was that time itself can be bent, which was proven during the eclipse.

 

Chazal long ago taught that there is no such thing as a stagnant time or identical time. In fact, Shabbos time is different from weekday time, and the time of Nissan is different than the time of Tishrei. That is what we mean with the phrases Zeman Simchaseinu and Zeman Cheiruseinu. Some times are propitious for teshuvah, others for achieving joy, but each particle of time is made up of different spiritual molecules and atoms.

 

Another Elul lesson from the eclipse is to have deep respect for the profound words of our sages. Sometimes, it takes centuries and even millennia for the world to catch up to the eternal words of Chazal. In the case of the eclipse and how time itself is sculpted when the sun is covered, on this year’s Erev Rosh Chodesh Elul we learned that we have indeed entered a different time zone. The dimension known as Elul has different rules and unique opportunities, some of which are difficult or even impossible at any other time.

 

We know from the various acronyms for Elul that this is a month when Hashem demonstrates His intense love for us. He provides for us a place and time to escape and ponder our existence and purpose. We can ride this time warp to incredible celestial heights, but first we must appreciate the uniqueness and treasure of this gift. This year’s gift wrapping is the eclipse. Let us indeed treasure both as we go about our delicate preparations for the crucial days ahead.

 

A kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.