Solar Eclipse: ‘The End’ or ‘The Beginning’?


Monday’s solar eclipse in the USA provided a writing opportunity for merging my science background with gleanings from theological and faith practices.

The timing of the eclipse—falling on the Hebrew date of Rosh Hodesh Elul, or the 1st day of the month of Elul, and exactly one month before the 1st day of Tishri or Rosh haShana, the Jewish New Year—was laden with significance.

The Hebrew calendar is based upon the lunar cycle, and each Jewish month begins on the occurrence of the new moon.

This is different from other cultures whose calendars are based upon solar cycles, such as our civic Gregorian calendar. And it is the new moon, not the full moon, that is the significant phase of observance.

The Biblical significance of the sun and moon begin in Genesis Ch.1 v.14. God says that there shall be lights in the expanse of the heavens, to divide day from night, and:

“והיו לאתת ולמועדים ולימים ושנים”

“…they will be signs, for the set aside times, and for the days and the years.”

What God has created then with the sun and moon are not merely two planetary light fixtures, but objects in the expanse of sky above that provide signals to us for the observance of seasons and other specially set or appointed times.

We observe that the moon has cyclical phases and have set the new moon as the beginning of the each new month. The crescent of new moon emerges after its disk has waned fully leaving darkness. In observance, we take time off, especially women, and look forward to the moon’s cycling back to fullness. The eclipsed moon disk signals the time of pause before a new cycle begins; it is the hidden becoming manifest; the time to reflect upon what had been and what can be; the grieving of what was unfulfilled and the anticipation of success in the future. We are given the monthly gift of renewal.

On the science side, according to NASA a solar eclipse occurs when the moon, earth and sun are so aligned as to block one another’s light during the moon’s orbit around the earth. A solar eclipse can only happen if the new moon phase passes near one of the angular nodes of the moon’s orbit around the earth, explaining why there is not a solar eclipse with every new moon.

So the month of Elul in the USA this year has had two birth phases, the lunar new moon and the solar eclipse, both by biblical and scientific reckoning.

This solar eclipse held special spiritual significance for many. I wanted to know what that was like for different peoples.

I  studied surveys of various ethnic and cultural groups to understand. What I learned was that for cultures that base their calendars and reckoning on the sun, such as we do in civic North America with the Gregorian calendar, a solar eclipse can be an ominous event: The great object that provides light, safety, energy and food—disappears.

For those whose culture is solar-base, even for the 2-1/2 minutes of the total eclipse, this is an ominous portent for some. Theological and liturgical explanations include: heralding the Rapture which will whisk away Christian believers and leave behind everyone else to face seven years of awful tribulations; God’s judgment upon humanity and against human sin; kings were not able to stop the sun’s disappearance, even by royal decree; Ancients filled the skies with other gods; Judaism, with its plethora of blessings for every natural event, has none for a solar eclipse.

Other traditions see the eclipse as a time for deeper introspection and prayer. In Judaism rather than providing a blessing, the Talmud gives lessons about the value of prayer at such times. In Native American traditions, commentators say their people see the time of solar eclipse as the liminal moment, the time between one world and the next. The National Museum of the American Indian set up a blog for indigenous peoples to post what their traditions are, and indeed the imagery of prayer, of self-reflection and change, of imminent rebirth, were commonalities.

This, then, is the time to pause and reflect on what has been; and upon what one may wish to step into as the light returns.

Whether your practice or culture is solar or lunar-based, the one thing in common is that prayer helps to ground one’s faith that indeed, the vanished sun or moon will indeed reappear. We have both God’s Word on that, and NASA’s.

Our ancient ancestors didn’t have NASA to explain the celestial events. Faith is the legacy they gave to us: that whatever happened in the past can be repaired as we pause in the liminal shadows and reflect on what and who we can be, in faith that the light will return.

~~Wishing You and Yours a Meaningful and Reflective Month of Elul~~

Lech Lecha, and Arrive!

Although we are nearing the end of the year-long cycle of reading the Torah, or Five Books of Moses, I am drawn to the themes in Chapter 12 in the Torah’s first Book Bereshit, or Genesis.

This Book is called Lech Lecha in Hebrew, which is translated as urging someone to ‘go forth’. Yet, so much more…תחת

There is an emphasis, a kick in the pants or as we say in Yiddish a potschke en tuchas.

You would say this to someone who is procrastinating or avoiding an encounter, putting off a decision, denying a problem, or overstaying a visit.

The Torah is once again doing us a favor. No one will willingly call you out or name for you the immense discomfort you’ll endure in order to maintain a status quo. But there is always a Torah story for that. And that is one of the gifts of studying Torah. Sometimes a close reading of a biblical story or passage about a predecessor can jog us into our own resolution when we are stuck.

But, it’s not enough to simply listen to or read the story. You have to really be engaged with the task. Here are some suggestions: let yourself not only hear or see the words, but as the story is told go into it fully. Feel the heat of the desert on your skin, see the infinity of the black and star-filled nights, taste the sweetness of the cool clear water or nurturing manna, feel the hefty weight of the swords in battle, the powerful arms of a chariot driver, the voice urging you to walk forth despite fatigue or pain.

Engage your inner vision; of taste, smell, skeleton and muscle. This is your way out.

Out of what? Well, only you know that. But here are some more insights from the Lech Lecha story. God tells Abram to go forth. Weren’t things okay for Abram already? All we know that he is a descendent of Noach (Noah), and then God calls to him to go forth one day.

There are many stories, or midrashim, that try to explain this sudden communication from God to Abram to act. The first midrash I knew about was told to us preschoolers in Sunday school. That Abraham (his name was actually Abram) smashed all the idols in his father’s store becaulse he didn’t believe they were real, like the real God he knew.

Although it is almost cartoon-like in simplicity and meant for children, I think that is a good adult explanation too. Isn’t that story describing the moment when everything you had always believed before, now crystallizes into a new truth? Remember when you realized that there was no Santa Claus and your parents were wrapping all those gifts for you under the tree, or that if you wanted to buy more toys you had to earn some money, or that you really had a dysfunctional family and really needed an escape plan?

Yes, these are concepts from childhood, but what did you do when you realized their truth? did you move forward and start giving as well as receiving gifts on holidays, did you create a means to earn income or did you seek out other safe places to live or work? Or are you still waiting for everything to go back to the innocent way it was before you had those awe-filled awakenings?

I ask this very personal question for you, as a favor, so you can start to move toward your answers.

Some of the outcomes of not heeding a call to move forward, and instead clinging to the perceived safety of the old and familiar routines, are not good. Some outcomes are: feeling too tired to act and sinking into depression, expressing helpless rage at others or self that things are not staying the same anymore, or coping by numbing through addictions.

Individuating into your own self-sustaining person is a daunting, difficult path. Yet once you know the truth of your circumstances, the courage can be summoned to take action.

When Abram started to listen to God’s Voice he grew out of being a son/child. As the Torah says in detail for us: he went forth from his land, from his birthplace, and from his father’s house toward the land which God would show him.

Heeding God’s voice was for Abram a true act of faith; he did not know where he was going, only that he should go. He was leaving behind all that was dear and familiar to follow a Presence that told him to go. And that by doing so he would make a great nation; and his name, or house of descendants, would be blessed.

I am not saying to wait for actual or imagined words in your ears or mind to know when to move forth, although that can happen. But when you have an insight; and a paradigm has shifted for you, that is a time to listen carefully with your inner ear. The real courage is to heed the call; keeping you eyes and ears open allows the details to grow clear.

Courage and strength to face the difficult and unknown comes from the faith that going forth means growth; and is indeed better than staying still.

Lech Lecha!

Instruments, Music, High Holidays*

During my summer break in Amsterdam, while attending a gathering with musicians from around the world, I came full circle back to Jewish instrumental music, and to the upcoming Yamim Noraim, the Jewish New Year season.

Lunchtime discussions with composer and musician colleagues from such places as Iran, Armenia, and Turkey included experiences with local contacts in the Jewish music communities where they live; music

Salomon Salzer

Salomon Salzer

that had originated in Persia and then moved into Turkey as musicians fled persecution some 400 years ago. The subsequent rise of the great Cantors and Jewish composers of Europe in the 1800s such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski exemplified the growth and popularity of exotic or ‘oriental’ music interests in Austria and Vienna prior to WWI.

Louis Lewandowski

Louis Lewandowski

Here the connection amongst my international peers became personal: For several years now, I have played Lewandowski’s heavenly adaptation of ‘Kol Nidrei’ on oboe, accompanied by cello, as the opening to the Kol Nidre service that opens the holy day of Yom Kippur at my local synagogue.

I want to share with you how having such instrumental music enhances the Yamim Noraim experience for congregants and patients, and some of the technical and practical information you might want to have about engaging such music for your place of worship or service.

Chaplains such as myself are mostly all aware that music has therapeutic, spiritual and healing capacities. We work with music therapists, sing at bedside, and bring recorded music to our patients and families to ease their time while unwell or transitioning. We can also bring ensemble music into worship or reflection time.

The benefits of instrumental music are that there are no words: it is pure experience, both for the listener and the performer. When I play Lewandowski’s piece, there is a moment when the notes climb just so high; and then I let go. The notes are released and go upward, unfettered by words or ideas; I think some even may still be rising.

I have had feedback from congregants that they, too, went somewhere at those moments of musical release. No words were exchanged. No sermons said, or liturgy sung, or readings read. Just a rising above, a seeking toward the Ineffable, and then a slow, blessed, and reflective return to the here and now.

That for me is the opening to the Kol Nidre service.

Practicalities if you wish to engage instrumental music for the High Holidays at your place of worship:
Play the music in secular time, before candle lighting, from the Bimah or other visible place, after everyone is seated and quieted. Musicians’ dress in white. Perhaps play some lovely Jewish melodies for ambience, as people are finding their seats, with no need for an attentive audience. Some good melody choices are: (Erev shel Shoshanim) “ערב של שושנים”  (Avinu Malkeinu) “,אבינו מלכנו”(Dodi Li)“,דודי לי.” Keep the ensemble small, 2-3 musicians.

How to compensate the musicians? We have to talk about that. Although we say musicians “play” music, it is a job — and hard work! Please pay appropriately. The rate should be about $300-$500. Remember, there is a great deal of time invested by musicians for recruiting the right ensemble, choosing repertoire, rehearsals, clothing, for time setting up, the actual performing, and then taking down. What would you pay a guest speaker for a keynote plus other speeches at a major synagogue event? Adjust according to the venue: a care home, a chavurah, a large urban synagogue, etc.

I love doing the work of bringing instrumental music into spiritual care settings. I also believe that bringing instrumental music to worship is a form of spiritual care for the congregants who are not in a care home or hospital. We can all benefit from the inclusion of spiritual connection through instrumental music to our already well-founded traditions of liturgies, Torah, and sermons.

Try this for your ימים נוראים and let me know how it goes.

לשנה טובה ומתוקה ומוסיקלית

*this article can also be found in the Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains Newsletter pg. 9

Selichot-Return to the Land of Your Soul

Selichot is the name for the Jewish service that comes on the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) before Rosh haShana, the observance of the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew word, selichot means pardons or apologies, reflections on the past and the act of saying some things we did were done wrong and we admit it. We admit it and also think about how, if encountered again, we would act in the same situation.

There are three types of errors or sins in Judaism: one that occurs by accident that you might not even know you committed; one that you know you committed and know was wrong; and one you know you committed and yet believe was right to do.

In all of these ways of erring, we suffer. Life cannot realistically progress in steps of frozen perfection. Such a need for control and perfection leads to mental and social breakdowns for both individuals and communities. Our sages knew that allowing our mistakes helps us to thrive and grow stronger. The pressure to be perfect when perfection is not achievable or even desirable, takes its toll. As long as we choose to acknowledge and consider how we can learn from mistakes to do the same things better, given the chance, we are released from the burden of regretting the mistake.

There are some formulas for actualizing the desire to return to wellbeing, how to process from mistake to lesson learned. The components are familiar terms: reflection, insight, feelings and emotions at the time of the incident. Were you so driven by emotions at the time that you spoke or acted without using your good judgment and intellect? What would you prefer had been happening, both in yourself and in relationship with the other person? Can you slow down the action and see it from the distance of today?

Now comes the work part. Understanding means now that you are away from the situation you can do the intellectual examination. Where is the moment when you did or said the thing you are regretting? Understand why you did it. Was it due to emotional charges you were compelled to yield to for example. If so, be comforted with what Daniel Goleman tells us about emotional intelligence: that the ability to tolerate delayed gratification will allow your nervous system to move away from the emotional seat of the brain to the intellectual one.

You can tell yourself, ‘wait, don’t take this bait, wait for delayed gratification’ next time. If emotional bait is set out, you don’t have to bite immediately. Let it dangle until it looks more like an opportunity to think than for biting.

Looking back on what you did is step one. Understanding through intellect and recollection is step two. Next, the healing part. Forgive yourself. No matter who did the bad thing, you must forgive yourself for having been drawn in, or for perpetrating the situation. Either way, you had your good reasons at the time. Forgive yourself for not having seen the better way back then. At the very least, no self-battering. You goofed, knowingly, unknowingly, or believing it was okay. You can always put your hands out to the sky and say, “I goofed and I want to get past it.”

God listens to these prayers. People don’t always listen or believe. You and God can have your own private talk about it. Any time. While washing the dishes, watching a sunset, during the silent Amidah in synagogue, in other spiritual homes or circles. This companioning and witnessing with God or with trusted others lends the power of feeling safe, so that you could now be faced with the same situation again, and know how to do it better.

The last step is to go back to the person or situation and apologize. A fad in the 1980’s was to turn to your neighbor in synagogue and tell them “I apologize if I have done anything to hurt you this past year.” That is not teshuva, a real return to the land of our souls, from before the error or sin. This is a copout formula.

Teshuva means speaking directly to the other party about the actual event. It means apologizing without explaining anything. The formula, “I’m sorry I didn’t turn in my homework. Because the dog ate it.” has never worked. “I’m sorry I didn’t turn in my homework.” Is sufficient. It is the bridge or kesher that you have now built between yourself and the other person. Don’t cheapen it with excuses, valid or not.

It is the apology that counts, not the reason for the mistake. If you can both learn from the reasons, very good, but know that it is the apology that holds the power to heal.

I hope this small foray into how forgiveness of self, of others, of prayer or witnessing, and of offering apology can heal relationships has gently touched and awakened some aching places. I hope you are able to unload some of the weight we all manage to assemble, usually so subtly we don’t realize it is there until it has been released through processing.

I know my life has been lighter these past few hours since Selichot, and wish us all further days of lightness and auspicious beginnings.

Take 5 for Cello Music al fresco

It is always a pleasure to take a stroll in Vancouver when we are having weather as lovely as we have this past week has been.

Today I took time out from my task of absorbing and adapting new Balkan and Klezmer tunes on my Oboe and English Horn to get some fresh air.

To my delight, the sidewalks near my home were chalked with happy notes pointing to ‘Cello Music’, some with whimsical musical notes in pretty colours. I knew right away who it would be at the end of the trail: Clara Shandler, Canada’s Sidewalk Cellist!

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara Shandler Sidewalk Cellist

Clara is a treat to watch and listen to with her carbon-fiber cello and fusion of new and classical music.

It is also a treat to perform with her and I have had the pleasure of joining her on Oboe to offer liturgical music, particularly Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’, for the opening minutes before the Kol Nidrei service begins on the evening of Yom Kippur. I can attest to the melding of music and sacred time when we have played this piece together, notes intertwining as they ascend up to the heights, transforming players and listeners for the ascent back to earth. A wonderful opening to this Day of At-one-ment.

Today, Clara played solo in the park, a mix of Debussy, Fauré, live Gypsy and heavy metal riffs, with loops assisted by her electronica.

The important thing Clara does is to explain her music: its history, her history, her selection, and how it is blended. And, expect a quiz—listening for themed passages. The audience becomes fully engaged. It was a pleasure to sit on a blanket with adults and children, everyone engaged with the music, some crayoning her fun posters, and allowing the final chords to fade before applause. How refreshing! How al fresco!

The other thing about Clara’s music is that she shares it locally and abroad. She teaches music in Asia as well as touring Canada coast to coast.

For me, today’s neighbourhood stroll brought an unexpected treat. No one had to dress up or buy an expensive ticket or commute to a theatre. Music as no-big-deal made it a Very Big Deal.

The pleasure today was in the surprise of this found music; under a tree on a blanket; in the neighbourhood, simple and soft, complex and rustic.

That so many were attracted and attentive to this unexpected music-in-the-park reminded me of the Psalms.

You may have noticed a cryptic phrase opening many of these saying, ‘to the conductor of instruments’. This is no accident: the psalmist used their knowledge that music bypasses the complex thoughts that confound our lives. We find ourselves unwinding from those entanglements as music engages our non-verbal inner selves.

The Psalms were meant to have a music and rhythm, and for good reason.

Their words of comfort and healing were meant by the composer to be matched with the non-verbal sounds of sacred music. Need and example? look at the list of instruments in Psalm 150.

Next time you are strolling by a musician, Take 5 and allow the sounds to move your inner thoughts from words to music. And remember how special all of our musicians are at creating that charged elixir, including the Sidewalk Cellist!