Tuesday, March 6, 2018

From Purim to Passover

Click the link below to listen to the fifth annual Anita Rossman Memorial Lecture, delivered last night in Santa Cruz, California.

From Purim to Passover: Lessons from Queen Esther on Courage, Sacrifice, and Redemption

Saving the Jews: The Great Mordechai - Esther Debate

An enigma lies at the heart of the Megillah.

It begins with Mordechai instructing Esther to appeal to the king to overturn the genocidal decree against the Jews. Esther responds that that would be suicide. Everyone knows that to enter the king's throne room uninvited is asking for instant death.

Do not misunderstand. Esther is not refusing to intercede on behalf of her people. Not at all. All she is saying is that it would be unhelpful to get herself killed. Even if the king does spare her life, violating the law is unlikely to gain the king's favor. Rather, the prudent course of action would be to wait until the next time the king calls for her. Then she will make her plea and save the Jews. The destruction of the nation is scheduled for the thirteenth of Adar - eleven months away - so there is plenty of time. 

Esther is aware that she has a critical role to play in the divine plan. Undoubtedly, the very same God who installed her as queen will also see to it that the king will grant her an audience and consent to her request. This is why Esther sent Mordechai a fresh set of clothes. She was telling Mordechai, "You can stop crying. I'll take care of it."

Esther's thinking is perfectly reasonable. Mordechai, however, won't hear of it. To paraphrase his response:

If you think you are safe in the palace, you are gravely mistaken. If you are silent now, the Jews will be saved some other way, and you and your family will be destroyed! Who knows if this is why you became queen?

Mordechai's confidence in the nation's future is inspiring, but his harsh words to Esther are in dire need of an explanation.

Mordechai is questioning Esther's assumptions about why Hashem made her queen of the Persian Empire. Esther thinks she is there to intercede on behalf of the Jews. Mordachei differs. "Who knows if this is why you became queen?" In the absence of prophecy Hashem's plans are unknowable. Hashem will see to the survival of the Jews; the question is only what He wants from us. 

Mordechai recognized that the decree to destroy the Jews was not merely the collusion of Haman and Achashveirosh; the decree has its origin in heaven. The sages of the Talmud assumed the same and wondered what the Jews had done to deserve such a fate. Some suggested it was the sin of attending Achasveirosh's party. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai attributed it to the sin of bowing to statues of Nebuchadnezzar. Regardless, the Jews are not in need of protexia, what they need is atonement.

One method of achieving atonement is through sacrifice. In the absence of the Beis HaMikdash, animal sacrifice is unavailable. However, there is another kind of sacrifice, the sacrifice of tzaddikim. "The death of tzaddikim atones like the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash." 

Mordechai was telling Esther that, in his opinion, Hashem had selected her as the national Korban. "Either you go to the king now and sacrifice yourself, or Hashem will take you some other way. One way or the other, atonement for the nation will come through you."

Esther accepted Mordechai's assessment of the situation, but disagreed on the solution. Mordechai thought that as the chosen one, responsibility for the nation fell on Esther's shoulders. Esther differed. She believed that if the nation was in need of sacrifice, then it should come directly from the the people themselves. They were the ones who sinned and so they must rectify it. Esther therefore instructed Mordechai to gather all the Jews together and institute a three-day fast. After the people gain forgiveness for their sins through tefillah and teshuva with mesiras nefesh, then it will be safe for Esther to approach the king.

Mordechai recognized the truth of Esther's words and followed her instructions. The rest is history.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Kickstarter Campaign

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Help support the amazing Moshe Reines Project. (The project is amazing, but far more amazing is Moshe Reines himself.)

Click here to learn more.

Monday, February 19, 2018

On the Trail of Blessings: Honoring Parents vs. Learning Torah

Dedicated in memory of my grandfather
on the occasion of his 50th Yorzteit

When Rivkah orders her son Yaakov to deceive his father, present himself as Eisav, and steal the Berachos, Yaakov is nervous. "My bother is a hairy man and I am of smooth skin. Maybe my father will feel me and discover that I am an impostor. I will have then brought a curse upon myself, not a blessing!" 
Rivka responds by saying, "Your curse will be on me, my son. Now go and listen to my voice..."

Yaakov brings the goats and Rivka prepares the meat. She then dresses Yaakov in Eisav's clothes and puts the furry goat skin on his arms and neck, just in case Yitzchok would try to feel him. The plan works perfectly and Yaakov gets the Berachos.

Rivkah's response to Yaakov's question is difficult to understand. Her flippant comment about accepting Yitzchok's curse does little to alleviate Yaakov's fear; if anything, it gives the impression that she has no plan at all. Instead of explaining herself, Rivka tells Yaakov to be obedient and follow orders. However, Rivkah does have a plan, and it's a good one. Why doesn't she tell Yaakov what it is upfront? 


Eisav's strong point was his performance of kibbud av, honoring his father. Presumably, Eisav's claim on the Abrahamic birthright and its associated Beracha was not merely due to the fact that he was the eldest son; it was also in the merit of this most fundamental mitzvah, a mitzvah that was a core family value in the house of Avraham.

Eisav's great-grandfather Terach was a kibbud av innovator, the first man in history to name his son (Nachor) after his father (Nachor). This helps us understand why Hashem chose Terach's son Avram to be the father of the Torah Nation, for the survival of Judaism generation after generation depends on kibbud av. Parents are obligated to teach their children Torah, but that is obviously predicated on their children's respect and trust.

Moreover, respect for parents is a basic building block in the education of a child to respect his Creator. This principle finds expression in the Ten Commandments, where kibbud av is bundled on the first tablet together with the laws governing the God/man relationship

The centrality of kibbud av also explains why Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov all insisted on marrying nieces and cousins: kibbud av was a core value in all of Terach's descendants. Only on a foundation of kibbud av could the Torah Nation be built. 

Yitzchok elevated kibbud av into his guiding light in life. In virtually everything he did, Yitzchok followed his father's lead. In the end, Yitzchok's life matched Avraham's life. "The two of them walked together." Yitzchok's firstborn son Eisav had his challenges, but he excelled in kibbud av. Undoubtedly, this was a primary factor in Yitzchok's election of Eisav as the next patriarch. 

Now we understand why Rivkah did not reveal her plan to Yaakov. Rivkah knew that in order to successfully transfer the Berachos to Yaakov, Yaakov would have to compete with Eisav and prove his commitment kibbud avExplaining her plan would undermine the challenge! Yaakov must submit to his mother's inexplicable command and follow orders faithfully, without protest. Only after performing a sacrificial act of kibbud eim could Yaakov take on the mantle of leader of the Abrahamic dynasty.


At the end of Parshas Toldos, Rashi does some elementary math and discovers that fourteen years are missing from Yaakov's life. When Yaakov meets Pharaoh in Egypt, biblical chronology indicates that he was one hundred and sixteen years old - but Yaakov tells Pharaoh that he is one hundred and thirty. Rashi explains that before going to Charan, Yaakov spent fourteen years learning in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

Rashi goes on to cite a disturbing teaching of the sages. From the time of his arrival in Charan, it was twenty-two years before Yaakov returned home. During this entire period Yaakov failed to observe the mitzvah of kibbud av - and he was punished for that failure. Yaakov's own beloved son Yosef went missing for the exact same amount of time: twenty-two years. However, continues Rashi, Yaakov was not punished for the additional fourteen years he spent in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever. Although he failed to observe kibbud av for that period, the merit of Torah learning protected him from suffering any consequences (Rashi to 28:9).

This entire teaching is difficult to fathom. Yaakov's parents explicitly told him to leave home and go to Charan to find a wife. Yaakov arrived penniless and had no choice other than to agree to Lavan's terms and work for fourteen years for the hands of Rochel and Leah in marriage. How could he be punished for his inability to honor his parents when he was busy fulfilling their wishes? Wouldn't that itself be the highest form of honoring parents?!

Another question: Why was Yaakov penniless? His parents were wealthy; why didn't they give him money? When Avraham sent his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchok, he sent him off with ten camels laden with gold and silver. More than that, Avraham formally gifted Yitzchok with his entire estate to make the shidduch more attractive (Rashi to 24:10). How could Yitzchok send off Yaakov empty handed?  

Rashi quotes a Midrash. Yaakov actually left home with plenty of money. However, Eisav sent his son Elifaz to pursue and assassinate Yaakov. Elifaz caught up with Yaakov, but he couldn't bring himself to kill him. Trapped between his father's command and morality, Yaakov offered a solution. "Take my money!" A poor man is compared to dead man; by making Yaakov poor, Elifaz could report back that he had "killed" Yaakov (Rashi to 29:11).

Was it really necessary for Yaakov to give away all his much-needed money? Why didn't he just explain to Elifaz that there is no mitzvah of kibbud av when your father asks you to commit a crime? 

There is a deeper level of meaning here. Eisav undoubtedly told Elifaz the whole story of how Yaakov lied to their father and stole the blessing of wealth. Elifaz was coming to revenge his father and kill Uncle Yaakov for his inexcusable crime. Yaakov knew this and was defending himself against this accusation. He explained to Elifaz that there are circumstances in life when misleading your own father and stealing from your own brother is actually the right thing to do - even if it results in great personal gain. However, it must be done in a way that is technically honest. A case in point: The right thing for Elifaz to do right now is to steal from his brother (i.e. uncle, cf. Bereishis 12:8) and tell his father that he killed him.

A very different explanation for Yaakov's poverty is proposed by the Ibn Ezra: Yitzchok actually was broke. Somehow he had lost the vast wealth he inherited from his father and he had nothing to give Yaakov. 

According to either of these explanations, Yaakov had no choice but to spend years working for Lavan, making it difficult to understand how this would be a violation of kibbud av. However, what if Yaakov chose to be poor? What if Yitzchok did in fact offer Yaakov ten camels laden with gold, but Yaakov turned him down. Strange as it sounds, there multiple rationales for this. 

Firstly, taking money from his elderly father would further enrage Eisav. Eisav maintained his claim on the birthright. Taking even a single penny from the estate would be viewed by Eisav as an act of theft from his own forthcoming inheritance. An additional consideration: the Halacha requires that the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, must be the wealthiest Kohen. If the most qualified candidate is not the wealthiest, then his brethren, his fellow Kohanim, are obligated to chip in and make him the wealthiest. As Yaakov explained to Eisav years earlier, the birthright includes the privilege of offering sacrifices. If Yitzchok would give his wealth to Yaakov, the vindictive Eisav would construe that as the election of Yaakov as the new Kohen Gadol! Sensitive to Eisav's feelings, Yaakov refused to take any money from their father.

Secondly, Yaakov may have wanted the Beracha of wealth to come directly from Hashem, in fulfillment of Yitzchok's words, "God will grant you the dew of heaven and the fat of the earth, and abundant grain and wine..." If Yitzchok gifts Yaakov with wealth, that could potentially undermine and downgrade the divine flow of blessings from heaven. 

There is a precedent for this perspective. When Avram was offered the spoils of his own military victory, he refused it. 
Avram said to the king of Sodom, "I raise my hand [in an oath] to Hashem, the exalted God, owner of heaven and earth: From a string to a shoelace, would I take anything that is yours?! You shall not say, "I made Avram rich!" (14:22-23)
Avram wanted the blessing of wealth to come from Hashem himself and not through a human intermediary; his grandson Yaakov may have felt the same way. (For a fuller treatment of this principle, see this post.) 

It is also possible that Yaakov chose to be poor because he did not want to be tested with the challenge of wealth. (For more on this idea, see this post, this post, and this post.)

Regardless of his motivations, if it was Yaakov's own decision to be poor, it becomes a lot easier to understand why he is held accountable for the years spent abroad working for Lavan. Had Yaakov accepted Yitzchok's gold, he could have brought his fiancee Rachel straight back to Israel (just as Eliezer brought Rivkah home one generation earlier) where he would have been able to properly fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av for twenty-two additional years. 


Earlier we explained why kiddud av - Eisav's forte - is the pillar upon which the Mesorah rests. A tradition is only as strong as the respect and honor children have for their parents. "Listen, my son, to the lessons of your father; do not abandon the Torah of your mother." The torch of Torah is passed from one generation to the next through the intermediary of parents.

There is another way for the Mesorah to survive and thrive generation after generation: through a person's own learning. One who labors in Torah merits to be taught Torah by Hashem Himself. "Blessed are you Hashem Who teaches Torah to His nation Israel!" This was the path of Yaakov. Yaakov "sat in the tents" of Shem and Ever and received Torah directly from the source. For Yaakov, honoring parents is secondary.

However, when Yaakov stole Eisav's Beracha, Yaakov's destiny changed. It was not only his brother's blessing that he took; he also took on his brother's mission, and now Yaakov must become the world's leading proponent of kibbud av. It is critical that Yaakov model this path for future generations - ma'aseh avos siman l'bonim - and there is zero tolerance for failure. Observing his parent's instructions to find a wife may be a technical fulfillment of kibbud av, but it is not the kind of kibbud av that Yaakov needs to focus on. Yaakov must serve his father and become his father's student, in the model of Avraham's servant Eliezer, who "drew and gave others to drink from his master's Torah." To accomplish this, Yaakov must be home.

Nonetheless, as long as Yaakov remains in the tents of Shem and Ever studying Torah, he is exempt from kibbud av. In the Beis Medrash, Yaakov's original identity comes to the fore. There Hashem teaches him Torah, and the need to learn from his father fades. But the moment Yaakov leaves the Beis Medrash and sets out to do Eisav's work in the fields abroad, the service of kibbud av becomes imperative, and no excuses are accepted.

Enroute to Charan, Yaakov offers a prayer: "If God will be with me... and return me in peace to my father's house..." (28:20-21). It is noteworthy that while Hashem always speaks of Yaakov's return to "this land" (28:15) or the "land of your birth" (31:13), Yaakov specifies his father's house. Years later, when Yaakov finally heads home, his father-in-law Lavan knows exactly what is on his mind. "You left because you yearned for your father's house..." (31:30). 

For Yaakov, returning to Israel is more about homecoming than dwelling in the Holy Land, and that is because Yaakov's new role requires him to focus on kibbud av. Yaakov thus yearns for his parent's house, where he can care for, and learn from, his father and his mother.

Monday, February 12, 2018

On the Trail of Blessings: Two Delivery Systems

When, due to the famine in Israel, Avram heads south for Egypt, he instructs his wife Sarai to say that she is his sister, "so that it will be good for me" (12:13). She follows his instructions and this is indeed exactly what happens. "[Pharaoh] was good to Avram because of her, and he got sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves, maidservants, female donkeys, and camels" (12:16). The family arrived in Egypt destitute; when they returned to Israel, "Avram was heavily laden with livestock, silver and gold" (13:2).

Later in the Parsha, after conquering large swaths of territory in battle, Avram is approached by the deposed king of Sedom. The king makes an presumptuous request. "Give me the people. Take the wealth for yourself." Avram responds by rejecting the spoils. "I raise my hand [in an oath] to Hashem the exalted God, creator of heaven and earth. From a string to a shoelace - I will not take anything that is yours! You shall not say, I made Avram rich" (14:21-23). According to the Midrash, Avram explained himself, "Hashem promised to make me rich, as it says [in the original blessings of Lech Lecha], "I will bless you" (Rashi ad loc.).

There are two obvious problems here. Firstly, Avram gives away what is rightfully his because Hashem promised to make him rich?! Does Avram expect gold to rain down from the sky? Maybe Hashem intended to make him rich through the spoils of this miraculous military victory! Secondly, how do we reconcile Avram's righteous oath not to take a dime from the king of Sedom with his eagerness to harvest wealth from the king of Egypt? These are powerful questions indeed (see Gur Aryeh to 14:23).


At the beginning of the Parsha, in the final words of the original blessing of Lech Lecha, Hashem tells Avram, ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, "through you all the families of the earth will be blessed." In other words, all of humanity will be blessed because of the Jews. This can happen in one of two different ways. We will call them System One and System Two.  

System One functions when the Jewish People are in the land of Israel. In the Holy Land, Hashem's blessings flow to the Jewish Nation in the form of agricultural produce. 
Our forefather Yitzchok sowed his field in Israel and harvested מאה שארים, one hundred times the expected crop (Bereishis 26:12). This is an early example of System One at work, and the Torah promises the very same blessing for the Jewish future in Israel: "Blessed will be... the fruit of your soil... Blessed will be your basket and your kneading bowl" (Devarim 28:4-5). The blessing is not limited to abundance; it also includes speed. The Holy Land is called ארץ הצבי, the land of the deer (Daniel 11:16). This means that produce ripens at an accelerated pace in Israel (Kesubos 112a).

When Yitzchok wants give a blessing to his son, he begins with the blessing of the farm: "Hashem shall give you from dew of heaven and abundant grain and wine" (27:28). As opposed to Egypt where the Nile River provides a constant source of water to irrigate the fields, the farms of Israel need rainfall, and as the Torah tells us, rainfall in Israel depends on mitzvah observance"If you listen to my mitzvos... I will give the rains in their times" (Devarim 11:13-14). Obviously, this is miraculous; no natural cause and effect relationship exists between mitzvos and rainfall (Ramban to Vayikra 26:9). 

As a blessing which comes directly from Hashem, the produce of Israel is understandably sacred. This reality is reflected in the host of mitzvos which regulate its use (i.e., Terumah, Maaser, Leket, Shemitah, etc.). It is also reflected in the words of על המחיה, the blessing recited after eating grain products. "Rebuild Yerushalayim the holy city speedily in our days, and bring us up into it so we can rejoice in her rebuilding, eat her fruits, and be satiated by her goodness..." We are not praying to satiate our hunger for fruit; we are expressing our yearning to imbibe the elevating, sacred produce of the Holy Land (Bach, O.C. 208).

From the land of Israel Hashem's blessings spread out to the rest of the world, both materially and spiritually: materially through the exports of Zevulon (Bereishis 49:13) and spiritually through the Mikdash. "Since the day the Mikdash was destroyed... the flavor of fruit is gone" (Sotah 48a). The capital city Yerushalayim is the gate to heaven (Bereishis 28:17) and the Mikdash is the conduit through which Hashem's blessings flow to the entire world. System One is thus the ideal way in which the descendants of Avraham are a source of blessing for all of humanity. "Through you all the families of the earth will be blessed." 

There is, however, a second system. When the Jewish People are in exile, the situation is reversed. Instead of blessings flowing through the Jews to the nations, it flows through the nations to the Jews (cf. Ramban to Vayikra 18:25). When that happens, the host nation is enriched by virtue of being a conduit of blessing for the Chosen People. 

System Two is epitomized by the original exile in Egypt. Hashem told Avraham that his descendants would leave with great wealth, and indeed they did: the Egyptians literally handed them their gold and silver. In order for that to happen, the Egyptians obviously needed to have gold and silver. System Two is thus another way that the families of the earth are blessed because of Avraham.

Hashem presented System Two to Yaakov when he was on his way out of Israel. "Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth and spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and through you will be blessed all the families of the earth" (28:14). In other words, when you and your children are spread out like dust around the world, blessing will come to all of humanity because of you. What follows in Yaakov's own life sets the model. Hashem gives sheep to Lavan, and then, with Lavan's sheep, Yaakov becomes rich (30:31-31:1). Lavan himself recognizes this truth: "I know I have been blessed because of you" (30:27).

Throughout the long history of the Diaspora, we have witnessed System Two over and over again. Countries which hosted Jews were blessed with financial success and the Jews were beneficiaries of that success. However, when we were expelled, Hashem no longer had cause to send His blessings to those countries and their economic fortunes fell. 

Sometimes, System Two is activated inside the Land of Israel. As described in Parshas Metzora, when a Jew speaks lashon hara in the Holy Land, his home can be afflicted with tzaraas, necessitating the demolition of the house (Vayikra 14:33-45; Rambam, Laws of Tzaraas 16:10). Rashi explains why his house is destroyed. "During the entire forty years the Jews were [wandering] in the [Sinai] desert, the Amorites [in Israel] hid gold treasure in the walls of their homes. When the house is demolished because of the tzaraas, [the treasure] will be found" (Rashi to Vayikra 14:34). 

The problem is obvious. Why would a sinner be rewarded with treasure? 

In light of the two systems of divine blessings, the answer is clear. When in Israel, System One is in play and a Jew is meant to receive wealth directly from the Creator. However, a sinner who speaks lashon hara is unworthy of receiving blessings miraculously. How will he survive? Hashem knew this would be a problem. When the Jews accepted the spies' negative report, they demonstrated their propensity for lashon hara and were doomed to forty years of wandering in the desert. During that entire period, Hashem showered wealth on the Amorites - wealth destined for the Jews of the future. Hashem, in His infinite compassion and providence, set up System Two in advance, knowing that some Jews of the future will need to receive divine blessings through the intermediary of the gentiles.  


When Avram was in Egypt he was more than happy to receive the gifts of Pharaoh, for this is how Hashem's blessings flow when we are in exile. Hashem blesses the host country with wealth and we receive it from them. However, when Avram is in Israel, he refuses the wealth of Sedom. "Hashem promised to make me rich!" In Israel, Hashem blessings come directly from heaven in the form of rain and agricultural produce. Avrom refuses to receive wealth in any other way.

[This posts serves as the introduction to the "trail series." Begin the trail here.]

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Who Wears the Crown?

I am honored to recognize our dear friend Selwyn Gerber for hosting today's "lunch and learn" at Gerber & Co. in Century City. To listen to the recording, click on the link below:

The real meaning of Teshuvah - and how Rosh Hashanah makes it possible.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Sun Disappeared, the Moon Laughed, and I Discovered the Universe

I began to worry that we would miss it. Heading south from West Yellowstone with the whole family in tow, traffic was at a standstill. A mass exodus to the path of totality extended as far as the eye could see along the single lane of Route 20. Following the lead of several gutsy drivers, I turn the rented SUV onto a dirt road between the fields… 

Our destination was Rexburg, an innocent Western town with pretty parks, flapping flags and friendly folks. Eventually the traffic cleared and I got back on the highway. We made it to Rexburg in time to find a parking spot and join a crowd gathering in a large field to view the eclipse.

Reality eclipsed the hype.

Witnessing a total solar eclipse is incomparable to any other experience on earth. Those who missed it stare at the pictures in bewilderment, wondering what all the fuss was about. But a camera cannot capture the thrill and the terror of being in the shadow. You really did have to be there.

It’s not only photography that fails, language also has its limits. We have no words to describe intangibles like love, prayer, silence, or the color green. An eclipse, however, presents an even greater challenge. Writing about totality is like trying to explain infinity to a child. It is not just a want for words; the human mind is simply not wired for it.


I was unprepared. One moment there was a sun above my head, and the next, it was gone. I had underestimated the power of our star. Apparently, even the tiniest sliver of crescent sun is still a sun. And so, when the moment of totality arrived, it came as a shock.

We are unaccustomed to swift changes in the firmament. It takes an entire month for the moon to move through its phases. Prior to totality, the sun shrank too slowly for the eye to perceive movement. The daily sunrise and sunset are gradual and romantic, but there was nothing romantic about totality. The sun morphed before our eyes from a source of light into a source of darkness and we immediately felt the impact. Suddenly, the world went dark. Suddenly, a cold wind blew. Suddenly, stars appeared. Suddenly, we were screaming.

The great clockwork of heaven froze
. My time-conscious son Meir did not believe me when I told him afterwards that totality exceeded two minutes. He insisted it was no more than a few seconds.

I sense a
commotion around me, but the sound is off and the color is gone. A silent film playing in slow-motion. Everything is strange, foreign. The sky, the earth, people. Even the darkness is unfamiliar. It is not the darkness of night; it is the cold of outer space. Taking off my eclipse glasses, I look up and stare at the impossible.

It is magical and magnificent and splendorous and terrible. A globe of nothingness emanating rays of pure, ethereal light. The royal white mane of an invisible celestial lion.

I hear voices.

"Doesn't it look great on me?" The moon laughs, admiring herself in the mirror. "It's the sun's crown!" Her back is turned and she laughs again. I worry about her sanity.
A scientist, unsure of himself, makes a feeble attempt at reason. “That is not a crown. It is just the corona, the superheated gases of the solar atmosphere...”
"Gases, shmases! Are you blind? You don't see my crown? It is mine now. Mine! God knows, kings do not share crowns."
A simpleton speaks. "That crown is a curious thing. Dangerous, I say. When the sun wears it, it is invisible, and when moon wears it, she is invisible."
A prophet raises his voice. "What you see now in the heavens foreshadows the future redemption, when the light of the moon will once again be as bright as the sun, the way she was first created in Genesis.”
The moon is furious. "Silence!" she screams. "The future is today! I am King!" 
An old gentile woman whispers, "It is an evil omen. The end is near." A young boy starts to cry. 

I heed them no attention. Maybe some other time I'll ponder the meaning of it all, but right now that thing in the sky has me in a trance. It is so strange, so alien...

Peering out through the portal of the spaceship, I fix my gaze on the menacing, growing black hole at the center of the galaxy. The seatbelt light goes on as the pilot engages the hyperdrive and we head straight for the wormhole. Accelerating to light-speed…

I have always fantasized about space travel and here I am. I settle in to enjoy the trip, but then lurch back into reality. There is no spaceship. I am in Evergreen Park, in Rexburg, Idaho. I am on Planet Earth.

At long last, the fool on the hill sees the world spinning round. Totality is an ice bucket; an epiphany. We stand on a rock, speeding through the cosmos, dancing among celestial spheres.

We are always in outer space!

Excitement turns to panic. It cannot be. It just cannot be. Humans cannot survive in space. We can’t be here! We don’t belong here.

But then, where do we belong?

Totality strains consciousness to the brink of madness. Life is a miracle and we are so very, very vulnerable.


What is happening to me? Why am I reacting this way? There is nothing extraordinary about an eclipse. It is a simple alignment of the earth, moon and sun. A predictable phenomenon, solar eclipses occur somewhere on earth every eighteen months. Everybody knows the earth orbits the sun and everybody knows the moon orbits the earth. If darkness is so inspiring, the sun sets every night, for heaven’s sake. 

I suppose we could also ask why the Jewish People were shocked when God declared at Mount Sinai, “I am Hashem!” The Jews knew that already; they witnessed the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea. Everyone knew there was a Creator in heaven who cared for them, but when He pulled back the curtain and said hello, they fainted.

Totality is an “I am God” moment.

It was a magnificent spectacle – and it was also mundane. Trivial, actually. We don't even bother to recite a beracha on it. Our astonishment was entirely due to the fact that eclipses are rare. If eclipses were common we would pay them as much attention as a passing cloud. Nonetheless, I felt, we all felt, that we had witnessed a supernatural event. To quote my wife, the end of totality, seeing the sun burst forth from behind the moon, was like being present at the moment of creation. Let there be light!

photo by Dr. John Polansky

Despite our awareness that eclipses are ordinary, the experience shattered our complacency.

Why, you ask? Nature is nature. Nothing shocking about it. I share your question, but the problem of our irrational reaction is eclipsed by a second and far more important question. Why have we never noticed the universe before? You understand of course that this second question answers the first. After totality, the whole world looks different. Nature isn't natural anymore. "In His goodness, He renews the acts of creation every single day!" The triviality of the eclipsed sun is what makes it such a bright revelation of the Creator.

In retrospect, the eclipse was a silent pre-Elul Shofar blast. Out in Idaho, God yelled at humanity.

“Wake up and stop taking life for granted!”