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Rabbi's Message for September 2017

posted Sep 2, 2017, 2:23 PM by Michael Rose

In 1986, the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out. I was a teenager; the film became a favorite of mine, and was iconic for many of my generation. Ferris said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” In context, this was ironic because of all he and his friends did in that day. There wasn’t a lot of stopping and looking around, though at the same time there was an appreciation of every moment.

It is true that life moves fast, and it’s easy to get caught up and forget to notice, appreciate, remember extraordinary moments. Last month, the United States experienced both the wonder and the tragedy of nature’s exceptional events.

Our hearts are full of sadness and shock at the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey’s flooding in Texas and Louisiana, especially in the communities of Houston and nearby towns. We pray for the health and recovery of those affected most directly, for the consolation of those who lost loved ones, and for the return to normalcy for our Jewish communities and all who suffer the after-effects of this terrifying natural disaster. We have posted some suggested ways to assist the recovery effort on our website and on the Temple’s Twitter feed at twitter.com/TempleBethEmeth.

Before the waters rose and the winds came, however, there was another day with a very different sky. On August 21, the United States paused in awe as a solar eclipse reached totality all across our country. In Brooklyn, there was not a full solar eclipse, but at 2:44 pm, about 75 percent of the sun was covered by the moon.

In advance of the eclipse, there was a lot of excitement, and there were many warnings. “Don’t look directly at the sun! Permanent eye damage will result.” There was testimony on the internet from people who have damaged their eyes that way. It seems bizarre that the sun, so far away, could burn our eyes. And yet, that is how powerful it is. The sun is literally vital to our survival, and at the same time it can blind us.

This is one of the metaphors that can help us think about God, especially as God is depicted in the Bible. God is so powerful that God can rescue our people, care for us, sustain us with miraculous food (the manna in the wilderness), and lead us to the Promised Land. At the same time, God tells Moses, “No one may see My face and live.” We are taught that approaching God is dangerous for anyone not in a state of ritual purity. God ensures the survival of our people, but in the Bible, if we are not careful around that power, people die.

These days, a God that penalizes people in deadly ways for sin, who causes death when it’s not clear why, isn’t really the God we want, nor are those ways of thinking and talking about God helpful in times of disaster and pain caused by natural events like hurricanes, earthquakes or floods. We want a friendly God who loves us, forgives us, and tells us that when we do what we believe is right, we’re going to be okay.

Jewish tradition gives a blessing to say upon seeing a natural wonder, like a comet or lightning: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Maker of the works of creation” or “…whose power and might fill the world.” Most Jewish sources do not advocate saying a blessing for a solar eclipse, however, but see it as a bad omen. (Tradition does support saying one of these blessings when witnessing powerful winds.)

It’s not hard to imagine how frightening a solar eclipse might have been to those who didn’t understand it. And even though ancient Jewish and non-Jewish astronomers did understand how it happened, darkness when there is supposed to be light doesn’t look good, as light is generally associated with good and darkness with bad.

I was excited about seeing the eclipse (even the partial, Brooklyn version), and I took the sheet of “solar film” my husband had ordered (an uncut piece of the dark plastic material used in Eclipse Glasses) to the restaurant where I was lunching with a friend. We sat outside. It was amazing to see the sun as the moon passed between it and the Earth.

What was more amazing was the sense of community. A man at the table next to ours heard us talking, and looked over curiously. “Do you want to look?” I said. He did. Very shortly afterward, other patrons asked about my film sheet and asked to borrow it. It was passed around, among people who would not have spoken to each other under different circumstances.

I have experienced Brooklyn and NYC unity when faced with adversity — camaraderie in response to subway delays or other setbacks — but I have few memories of New Yorkers coming together around something positive and amazing.

For that reason, I reject the idea that the eclipse was a bad omen. We didn’t need a sign for that: We know that we live in a difficult and uncertain time. We saw Nazis and white supremacists march without fear in Charlottesville, Virginia. We saw the awful and terrible power of a mighty storm bring an enormous city to a halt, and we worry that a changing climate may bring more “500-year floods” on an all too frequent basis. But we as communities can and do come together and support each other. We can step up and help out, as many volunteers and organizations are doing in Texas right now. We can simply share our wonder and awe with those around us, and open ourselves up to the possibility of connection and community every day.

In a similar vein, our community will be joining with Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom toward the end of next month. It is tempting to see this as a metaphorical “eclipse” of one congregation by another (which is which depends on your perspective). It is our challenge—and I believe we will meet it—to recognize the feelings of loss that members of each congregation might be experiencing (the light is being eclipsed), and to see that beyond the loss there is opportunity and vitality—the sun will shine unhindered again.

Meanwhile, we thank God for the beauty of nature, the ability to help and heal, the opportunity to slow down and appreciate (if we can remember to take it), and the possibility of renewal, recovery and full sun. I look forward to seeing you soon.


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