On the last day of the Hebrew month, Av, known as Yom Kippur Katan, “the small day of repentance,” we witnessed a rare astral phenomenon: a total solar eclipse. On August 21, just a few hours after the eclipse, the sunset ushered in the Hebrew month of Elul, the 40-day period of repentance which culminates in our High Holy Days.
Our Talmudic Rabbis (Sukkah 29a) saw the eclipse of the sun as a bad omen for the world. They compared it to a king who makes a huge banquet and sets up a lantern to illuminate the party, but then, unhappy with his guests, covers up the light. So did the Jewish scholars see a solar eclipse as a sign of God’s displeasure with society.
Rabbi Yosef Berger found in a mystical text, Yalkut Moshe, a prophecy that, when a solar eclipse occurs at the beginning of the month of Elul, it portends a great loss for Kings of the East. Rabbi Berger sees this as a bad omen for the despotic leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un. However, Rabbi Lazar Brody interprets the fact that the eclipse is only over the United States as a warning that it is our nation which is in peril of God’s anger.
Yet all Jewish interpreters find reassurance in the fact that the sun itself is not extinguished during an eclipse but merely concealed. So, too, in the Jewish faith, we learn the theological notion hester panim (the eclipse of the Divine Face). During so many dark times of our people’s history it seems as though God’s presence is entirely absent. Yet even as the sunlight emerges from its eclipse, so are Jewish moments of hester panim (God’s remoteness) often followed by the light of God’s ongoing redemption of our people.
In some ways, 5777 has been a dark year. Our nation is beset with civil unrest, racial divisions, economic uncertainties, and partisan politics. Hate and vitriol have taken the place of national dialogue and coexistence. We seek light of God’s Presence to guide us in such turbulent times. So let us gather on these Holy Days and search for the light of the Holy One, seeking illumination from our faith and warmth from our community. Even if we find few answers, together we can hold hands and find our way through the darkness.
Rabbi Judy Chessin