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~~
From Curing to CaringI had long believed that Judaism was historically lacking in the wisdom to heal that so many other faiths and spiritual paths have built into them. This caused me to explore many other modalities of spiritual and physical wellbeing for sources of comfort, wisdom, and healing.
When I decided to embark upon the study path of Rabbinic Chaplaincy, one of my educational goals was to seek these sources within Judaism. After all, we’ve been around for over 5,700 years. We must have cultivated some gardens of wisdom in this area.
While studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I was delighted to find myself in classes that presented this material from Jewish primary sources, eg the Talmud, Mishnah, Pirkei Avoth, etc.
In preparation to entering a year of residency in Clinical Pastoral Education in hospital here in Vancouver, I began to synthesize what I am learning, from a variety of educational sources. Here, as we anticipate the Jewish High Holydays during this month of Elul, is a first integration of my personal and theological understanding of the difference between curing and caring:
R. Johanan once fell ill and R. Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why could not R. Johanan raise himself? 11-They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b)
Why bring this story to you as we approach the Yamim Noraim (Jewish High Holydays)? because I see in it much about the relationships and parallels between illness, health, and teshuvah (return to the Source). I am not suggesting that someone is ill because they made a mistake or committed a sin. In fact, we can all think of examples of well-meaning adults and children who experience illness or die, while many seemingly wicked people enjoy good health and long lives. So, that is not my purpose in sharing the above story.
There are two part to the above selection from Talmud that help us understand the nature of our pains or sufferings: notice in the story the question R. Hanina asks: Are your sufferings welcome to you?
Now, take a deep breath, and ask yourself this same question, too, Are your sufferings welcome to you?. Go ahead…ask. And listen for the answer. Are your sufferings welcome to you? are you ready to turn this around for yourself? if so, that is how our Jewish practice of teshuvah can help.
THIS SUMMER AT ALEPH’s annual Smicha Week for Ordination Students, I took a course on Teshuvah. Oy, did I learn that we commit avairos, as Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, calls them. These are mistakes, ‘oopses’, some intentional, some we didn’t know we did until we find out later. The practice of teshuvah helps us to reckon with these so they don’t stay stuck to us, like toxic sticky notes, making us anxious or even ill.
Two steps are involved in this teshuvah practice: acceptance and forgiving our self; and, reaching out to another who may have been hurt or hurt us, with acceptance or forgiveness. We are limited creatures; it’s good to remember that sometimes.
The second thing to notice in the Talmud passage is the last line: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.
In creating teshuvah, in caring about ourselves and about others, we recognize that we cannot do teshuvah alone; that having someone to reach out to, to be a mirror, or to give an outside perspective, is needed. In my Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer, one of our lessons about reaching out was, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.
Sometimes others see the forest while we are too busy being lost amongst the trees. We all have our reasons for wearing blinders or hiding painful or confusing topics from ourselves.
When it was first suggested to me that I should consider using my intuitive skills in a helping career, I balked and said, “No! I couldn’t feel right asking people to pay me to tell them what they already know!”
Well, that was several years ago and to be honest, I have paid the piper to tell me things I thought I didn’t know, too. How long can one spin their wheels or rattle the bars on their self-imposed prisons? Thankfully, we live amongst those toward whom we can reach out, and reach in and hold up those hidden places to the light of day.
Of course, once you know something, you can’t go back and not know it. You can move ahead though, knowing that you have been freed from prison, to find a way to make teshuvah. This doesn’t mean you’ve been struck by magic bullet and a cure; what spiritual care offers is care to go alongside as you work your edges.
IT seems have become too guided towards the expectation of cures, and too far removed from the care once provided by our relationships with family doctors, neighbours and clergy.Spiritual health is an essential part of physical health. May you be blessed with a year of health, happiness, peace, and long life.
Are You Prepared?
It was hard to find a good place to write onboard this Alaskan cruise ship. I finally found a spot to sit; it had been empty every time I passed earlier; too dark, too cold, and on the leeward side away from the sunset. Then, boom, thronging guests in formal-night dress converged: the moon has appeared, spectacular, over the glaciated mountain ridge in the view windows. Not just any moon; a full Alaskan moon, disk round as any voluptuous indigenous piece found in the many galleries on shore side.
Photos are snapped through the window; people mill all around in full dress, and I am here typing with my gingerale. Where are you right now?
It is Elul, and I am reading Alan Lew’s book, “This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared”. Those of us reading this book are on the journey from Tisha B’Av to Sukkot, the historical Jewish communal passage from destruction to reflection and return. We are taking the personal passage of finding how to let go of what has taken us away from where we want to be, and finding our way to return.
I am returning to Vancouver after a remarkable year of learning and growing in the challenging people cauldron of New York. There, I saw face to face my core and values and realized it was time to return home, both internally and externally. This has been my time of teshuvah, of letting things go, get messy if need be, and stand again in the source that nourishes me.
As a Jewish woman, to confess, I have had trouble with this idea of ‘teshuvah’ and ‘return’ at the High Holydays my whole life. “What did I do wrong?” I would ask myself every year. And I easily found so many misdemeanors: I did not exercise as much as I wished to, said something I shouldn’t have, passed up opportunities to relax, was too serious, or did not follow up on potential relationships. The daily grind of remorse only seemed to make me more alienated and disconnected from myself.
One year, a dear Rabbi friend counseled me that I am one of the people who reflect enough, implying ‘too much’, year round, and not to turn myself inside out during the Yamim Noraim. I gave myself a break, he was right, I did look inwardly too much. This year, though, has been different: I left my familiar places and people, and went off on my own, intentionally so.
I have learned the power of having every decision I make as my responsibility: I make them with a lot of self care these days. When I miss the mark, I own it, and this for me, has been the opening for trust in the process of teshuvah.
What is my take on this annual process that we Jews engage in, more or less? I say ‘more or less’, because there are two kinds of folks: those, like myself, who feel the gravitational pull of introspection over the High Holidays: and then those who at the other extreme who feel this as an annual time of obligation, guilt, or humor (think of the episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’, where the characters decide to save money by buying scalped High Holiday tickets).
Here is my take, this year:
We have in ourselves what we deeply dream of doing and being, we all have that. Can you remember what yours is? Really, remember now. Okay; and where are you now? Are you there close to that dream in your life? Yes? No? Are you sure this is your dream? Why not. That is what teshuvah is about: Why not.
What caused you to stray from yourself? A better paying career, self doubt? I say this because who else will convince you that you can’t do what you want. It’s not the outer voices of others; you can pass those up. It’s your own voice: yes, that one inside you. This is hard to consider, but please do for a moment. What if you spent this month with, as the Mateh Moshe proposed, an hour each day set aside to look inward?
Okay, that was a large idea. Do not attempt this without some guidance from a meditation teacher, or in community prayer! What may come your way is a landslide of feelings, and what you will need is a method for living with them, in peace. Meditation and prayer teach you to notice things as they arise and let them go their way, much like being afloat and observing objects drift by without grabbing on to them, staying afloat just as you are.
This is a good month to adopt a contemplative practice, and I say practice, because as you find your preferred place and time to meet with yourself and Gd, you will be teaching your body as well as your soul to look forward to this special time. Neuroscience is full of studies that show how adaptable our plastic brains are, and that they change as we change our habits. As we all know now, well-used neural pathways become the most natural ones for us. Elul is our annual invitation to begin the process of internal change.
During the year, when I sit as a Chaplain with patients who are suffering from spiritual distress, from a sense of loss of connection to themselves or others, or Gd, I ask them a simple question: can you recall a time when you did feel connected? Invariably, everyone can. This is the Gd moment. It is the moment when you know again who you are, in a way that is so natural you are not even thinking about who you are, you just ‘are’. A sense of peace and gratitude replaces the loss and disconnect at this memory. This is what we can hope to recreate intentionally every day, to reinforce our path to returning there, to our Gd place. This is a contemplative practice.
Another way I do this, is by playing my oboe everyday. Something happens when I play that instrument, so that no matter how fractured I feel, how much I am, as the Torah says, of ‘trafe da’at’, a torn mind, I become whole again.
I experienced the intensity of how this works for me the other week, a time of my toughest inner wrestling in my decision to return home to study. I went to my last oboe lesson, my mind gone in ‘trafe da’at’ and barely able to focus on how to get to the studio, but I did indeed arrive. My teacher finished blessing me with her wishes for my success in my decisions. Then we played an intense round of warm ups in unison, and by the end of a grueling ‘arpeggio boot camp’ drill, I was whole again. I had little time to reflect on what had just shifted inside as we moved into playing Lewandowski’s ‘Kol Nidrei’ together in duet. All I knew was that once again, oboe playing was repairing the tears.
What had happened was that my intense drive and love of playing the instrument overrode every intrusive thought and memory that tried to trip me up. I let nothing interfere with my intentions to play, and ditched any upwelling distractions, like others telling me what a folly it is to play such a devilish instrument. This is the ultimate meditative coming-home focus for me. The wholeness and love I felt after this lesson sealed the deal. I had returned to that place where I felt connected, just as I had counseled others to do, and decided I was going home. Gd was calling me by way of arpeggio boot camp.
I am now afloat, literally, on a cruise ship headed down Alaska’s Inside Passage toward Vancouver. It is close to bliss for me: the Alaskan landscape slides by under that full disk moon, a live jazz ensemble opens another set, passengers stroll about in their dinner formal wear and cheery talk. I enjoy their ambiance, and keep typing as they float by. I am heading home. Return to what you love. You can return home, too.