Seeing the Moon Eclipse:
A d’var Torah for Shabbat Shemot
December 25, 2010
Rabbi Ellen Lippmann
I went out in the middle of the night Monday night to see the eclipse of the moon. It was freezing cold, but we stayed out for over an hour as the shadow passed slowly over the face of the moon. We have seen lunar eclipses before, but this is the first time there has been one at the time of the solstice since 1554, 456 years ago. This was the chance of a lifetime. And it was wondrous. Standing on a street in Brooklyn, I saw God’s shadow. Wow!
Wow! is a seed of faith, the response that led Abraham to say “there is more here than just us.”
The seed of science is “Why?”
A small answer: An eclipse of the Moon (or lunar eclipse) can only occur at Full Moon, and only if the Moon passes through some portion of Earth's shadow. That shadow is actually composed of two cone-shaped components, one nested inside the other. The outer or penumbral shadow is a zone where the Earth blocks part but not all of the Sun's rays from reaching the Moon. In contrast, the inner or umbral shadow is a region where the Earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the Moon.
The wow and the why can go together, no reason why not. Faith and science in our time can’t possible be separated or live in separate spheres. They are two great lights that illuminate our world.
[Genesis 1: ] God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times — the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, to dominate the day and night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.
The rabbis asked, “Torah says there were two great lights. Why did God make the moon smaller than the sun?” One answer is that the moon had to be made smaller because it encroached on the sun by being visible during he day sometimes. Another is that it complained about having to share space with the sun, so God made it smaller. And a third answer is that the moon is like us, the people Israel: It is small but active, waxing and waning and waxing again, just as – they hoped – Israel would always renew itself.
The rabbis asked, “Why did God create the moon instead of allowing the sun to light the evening sky?” Their answer: God knew that people would worship celestial bodies. Rather than have them regard the sun as an all-powerful god – as they did in Egypt, perhaps? – God created the moon to lessen sun’s influence.
Moon worship was strong in Mesopotamia; in Haran, where Abraham came from, there was a great temple dedicated to the moon god, Sin. Can we hear its echo in the place God will choose to reveal Torah, Sinai?
During our trip to Israel and Palestine in October, we stayed for two nights in Beit Sahour, a town next door to Bethlehem. Beit Sahour means “house of the moon-watchers.” It is the home of the fields where, they say, those certain poor shepherds lay and saw the special star that indicated Jesus’ birth. They saw it because they were looking at the moon.
This week’s was the first eclipse on the solstice since 1554; some say since 1638. 1554 was not a great time for the Jews. On May 29, after an appeal by Jews in Catholic countries, the Pope agreed to allow the burning only of the Talmud, but not of "harmless rabbinical writings". On September 4, in Rome, Cornelio da Montalcino - a Franciscian Friar who converted to Judaism - was burned alive.
Does this explain why an eclipse of the moon was seen as an evil omen for Israel? It is also true that the moon was seen as representing Jacob, Moses, Joshua, and Esther. Eclipsing it in shadow may have been seen as though covering these important ancestors, who shaped us as a people and ensured our survival.
The 16th century was also the time of the early kabbalists, who saw in the moon’s monthly disappearance the exile of the Shekhinah, God’s indwelling presence. So they created Yom Kippur Katan, a little day of atonement, a fast day of sorrow and yearning.
If the last eclipse on the winter solstice was in 1638, then let’s note that in 1638, in Baghdad, the Ottoman Sultan Murad IV conquered Baghdad. The day was celebrated by Jews as a day of miracles (Yom Ness). In general, when the Ottomans ruled the city, life for its Jewish residents improved.
1638 was 372 years ago. Not much to do with 372, gematria-wise.
But 1554 was 456 years ago. From the number 456 we get the letters תנו
This can be the command for “give,” as in “tnu kavod laTorah - give honor to the Torah.” Or it can be “they taught,” as in a familiar Talmdic phrase, “Tanu rabboteinu – our rabbis taught…”
T’nu khavod la-Torah: Give honor to the Torah because its stories are so incredibly great. We begin reading now the story of our people being formed, a people born in slavery and pain, but pain that caused crying out to God, which caused God in turn to look for a liberator. Moses is born and lives in two worlds, shows bravery and compassion, and is chosen just when he seeks to escape. I think he’ll get us out. We are on our way to Sinai. (see-nai), place of the moon god and of receiving the Torah
Tanu rabboteinu: Our rabbis taught us to look up at the sky and note its inhabitants, sun and moon and stars, not to worship, but as a sign of God’s power. Our rabbis taught that there was a shadow side: a need for atonement, for guarding against moon worship, for fear of abandonment. To see that shadow pass across the moon at the solstice, a time of change, an unsettled time, a dark time, was wondrous and scary and needed explanation. We escaped slavery and pain time and again and became a people of faith and science.
Give honor and teach: To look at the moon in eclipse in the middle of erev solstice is to see the seeds of both faith and science: Wow! Why?