On December 21, 2020, the winter solstice, something unusual appeared in our night skies. They called it The Great Conjunction.
A conjunction, in the lingo of astronomers, refers to a meeting of planets or other objects in our sky. A Great Conjunction is used to describe a meeting of Jupiter and Saturn, the two biggest planets in our solar system. This is something that actually takes place every 20 years. No big deal, right? But this year’s conjunction was the closest one that we’ve able to witness from Earth since 1226—nearly 800 years ago! That made this year’s event extra special.
I had the privilege of watching the encounter of these two gas giants in real time. In other words, on my computer screen my eyes were able to take in the sight of enormous Jupiter, artistically striped in a gorgeous desert-hue color scheme, hovering very close to a Saturn replete with its magnificent outer rings. All around the two planets was the blackness of space, punctuated by the faint glow of distant stars and galaxies.
We’ve all seen pictures of our solar system. On a sheet of paper they appear as plain, flat circles in varying sizes, revolving around the familiar yellow sun. But what I saw on my computer screen was anything but plain or familiar. Watching the Great Conjunction in real time filled me with an emotion I found hard to identify. I kept murmuring something about how thrilling it was, but “thrilling” was too paltry a word to contain what I was feeling.
Hanging in the sky, enormous and perfect and real, were two planets that had seemed almost mythical to me before. A picture in a child’s textbook had suddenly gained depth and weight and color. The brilliant rings of Saturn showed as sharply defined as an architect’s drawing. The palette of Jupiter could have put an artist to shame. The two planets hung in space with, astronomically speaking, a mere hairsbreadth between them, like two neighbors pausing to greet one another on the street before each continues on along its own path.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the sight. And, gradually, I realized what it was that I was feeling.
It was awe.
“Awesome” is a word tossed about very freely these days. That’s probably because we’ve lost touch with the true meaning of the word.
Once upon a time, people were naturally imbued with yiras haromemus, a sense of awe before the unimaginable exaltedness of the Creator of heaven and earth. On a more mundane level, they trembled before the flesh-and-blood kings and princes who held complete sway over them. There was no need to imagine an all-mighty ruler whose decisions impacted every aspect of their lives. It was an ever-present fact, as real and immediate as the weather, readily glimpsed and constantly felt.
As the world moved away from the pomp and power of emperors and kings, the awe we once felt for mortal rulers began to drain away. In fact, the whole notion of royalty began to take on a cartoonish cast. The pronouncements of the man or woman sitting on the throne became irrelevant. The antics of the royal family became the stuff of tabloids.
With the decline of reverence for royalty, our ability to feel appropriate awe toward our Creator has become diminished as well. Perhaps we manage to grasp the hem of its cloak on Rosh Hashanah, when we address Hakadosh Boruch Hu each year as our King. We sense an echo of that reverence as we lower our heads before Him in profound penitence on Yom Kippur. But our daily lives are sadly bereft of that kind of conscious awe and reverence. The world has become ordinary, its sense of mystery diluted. Too much information has cultivated a sense of cynical acceptance.
These days, we tend to focus on ahavas Hashem, emphasizing our bond with Him and our need of His help in even the smallest things. Numerous books have been written about Hashem’s hashgochah, chronicling the many ways in which He showers His kindness on us in both the major and minor details of our lives. And that is as it should be. But our love for Hashem is only half the story. We may have lost sight of some of the trembling awe we ought to be feeling as well. As the world yawns at inventions and discoveries that would once have electrified it, maybe we, too, have moved away from the jaw-dropping, bone-jarring consciousness of His spectacular might, the awe-inspiring scope of His Creation.
A Creation in which planets hundreds of times the size of the Earth revolve continually around the sun in constant obedience to His will… mere specks among the trillions of other suns that populate the incomprehensible vastness of the heavens.
Although the two gas giants appeared very close to one another on the winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn at their nearest passing were actually a staggering 456 miles apart. Saturn orbits the sun at a distance almost twice as far as Jupiter. What we marked on the night of the Great Conjunction was a close encounter from our point of view here on earth.
And that, in essence, is the way we see everything. Each tiny glimpse of His indescribable wisdom and power and compassion only becomes our own when we experience it personally. Remember the famous philosophical conundrum: If a tree falls in a forest with nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound? Maybe a tree does make noise when it crashes to the ground in a forest with no one around to hear it. But the sound is meaningless in human terms unless there are human ears there to absorb it and to take in its message.
Hashem has graciously afforded us ample opportunities to witness His mighty hand. Daily, he offers us a chance to revel in the amazing universe He created. Even before He gave us the Torah, the design of the world and the laws of its nature were a book that lay open to the discerning eye. On its pages, the Creator’s stamp can be clearly seen.
Along with a constant sense of yiras Hashem, of awe and reverence for such a Creator, we can take pride and joy in the fact that, of all the nations of the world, He chose us as his special people. As we endeavor to live up to His expectations, His constant outflowing of chesed multiplies both our ahavah and our yirah. Both are integral parts of a Jew’s proper attitude toward Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
We will probably never travel to Saturn or Jupiter. Most of us will never even make it to the much-closer Moon. But the sight of those magnificent gas giants hovering in the skies above, monumentally weighty and yet floating effortlessly in space, more stunning than anything ever conceived of by the most talented artists ever to walk the earth, rendered them momentarily relevant to our earthbound lives.
But such a spectacle gains a much more lasting relevance if it also spurs us on to reverence. If it makes us widen our eyes, catch our breaths, and whisper, “Awesome!”