In case you haven’t heard, “America’s Eclipse” is coming on August 21, when the sun will be totally or partially obscured by the moon for a short time all across our country. We will see an eclipse percentage here in Las Cruces somewhere in the mid-to-upper 60s. It will be enough to note an eerie difference, and sufficient to see with even a crude pinhole - projection device that anyone could make at home. This astronomical phenomenon is a wonder because it is different from the ways in which we are used to seeing the sun and moon, and, for those in the area of totality, it is a rare opportunity to see the Sun’s corona because of the natural movement of three celestial bodies.
Of course, some spiritual leaders are seeing this event from a lens that would go back some time, like over two millennia, when there was a different understanding of a departure from the natural order of things. It is true that some Talmudic texts saw eclipses as bad omens, with a lunar eclipse being particularly foreboding for the Jewish people because our calendar is primarily based on the moon. Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, recently wrote a blog post that asserted that this particular eclipse could be a sign of God’s judgment on America. She quoted a verse from the book of Joel: “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (3:4). She then offered this caveat, “Please be assured that balancing God’s warning is His plea for us to return to Him and rend our hearts in sincere, heartfelt repentance. I can almost hear the tears in Joel’s voice as he pleads for us to repent and return to God, because, as Joel said, ‘Who knows? He may return and have pity and leave behind a blessing.’ (Joel 2:13-14)
An earlier part of that passage in Joel looks upon that special day as a time when “your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions” and that “everyone who invokes the name of the Eternal” would be a surviving remnant.
As for me, I believe that eclipses are amazing. They may actually give people in one locale or around the world a chance to feel that we are actually on the same planet, that we have to live together, and that dwelling on this earth provides us with some incredible moments when we just have to look to the skies.
Still, sometimes, we don’t get along. Look at the current war of words between North Korea and the United States. Hopefully, it is just a new version of the old cold war. An Associated Press report today noted that even with the statements going back and forth, there is a back-channel between our two countries, an attempt to preserve at least a desire to discuss development of ongoing talks. As we know from the Middle East, back-channels are essential to the preservation of order and to the prevention of real war. Hopefully, such contacts will keep any movement towards hostilities at bay.
While I was at the NewCAJE convention for Jewish educators near Oakland this week, we did read about everything that was going on in the world on our smartphones. We also heard from a speaker who encouraged us to use our smartphones wisely, to take a break from them every so often, and to use our access to technology to become better people. Filmmaker Tiffany Schlain addressed the conference this past Tuesday night to talk about her personal efforts to create worldwide movements towards improving who we are as individuals and as a global community. Schlain was the founder of the Webby Awards, which are presented to the best websites every year. She developed a day in her family to go without technology based on Shabbat - actually, coinciding with Shabbat, and she shared her idea for more people to do this all over the world. She believes we are in a world of interdependence, and that fact calls on us to be more considerate of each other, more hopeful and thankful, more creative and loving, and more respectful and responsible. Schlain created Global Character Day, which has been marked by programs worldwide over the last several years. Some Jewish leaders pointed out to her that her “periodic table of character strengths,” developed to help people get to know themselves and find ways to grow, bore striking similarities to the Mussar movement in Jewish tradition. Mussar was brought to light in modern times by Rabbi Israel Salanter in Lithuania in the 1800s. It was based on earlier texts that sought to create a moral foundation for walking in God’s ways through exploring and practicing middot, specific traits we can develop within ourselves as part of a community. So Tiffany Schlain realized that her Jewish background directed her to create a specifically Jewish version of Global Character day, with its own “Periodic Table of being a mensch” which you can see on your handout.
The reason that I mention this effort at character-building is only partially because I was at NewCAJE this week. In the Torah reading for this Shabbat is the second paragraph of the Shema in a traditional prayer book, which is also on every mezuzah parchment along with the Shema and V’ahavta. This is a classic statement in the Torah about how walking with God can give us rain, and how being lured away by other gods of our own creation can cause the heavens to refrain from giving their blessing. Most of us don’t believe this literally anymore, and don’t think for a minute that this applies to the rainfall in Las Cruces which comes only when it’s good and ready. The Torah presented this view of reward and punishment as a first understanding of a human dilemma. It was overshadowed in later books by other perspectives, especially by the book of Job, where one righteous man had everything taken away from him as a test to see if he would lose faith. He didn’t, but people around him still tried to claim that he must have deserved whatever had happened to him because of secret moral violations, even though that was totally untrue.
I have always been a believer in character education. Values transcend many of the ideologies that divide us, enabling us to see that we may have much in common with people who don’t agree with us otherwise. Tiffany Schlain’s periodic table may be nothing new, but we need just this type of roadmap for rank-and-file citizens as well as for leaders. If people directing national policy and those using their energies to serve and strengthen communities were to apply these middot, these values to their lives, and to learn how to do so along with their neighbors, there would be rain. The rain that would result would not come down from the sky, but would appear in the form of blessings of cooperation and harmony that might pleasantly surprise us. We human beings still have it in us to be people of good character. It is a project on which we should embark in concert with one another every single day.
As I sat with fellow Jewish teachers of all ages this week, I thought about the verse from the book of Joel, “Your old shall dream dreams and your youth shall see visions.” While I may have been in the older cohort of participants over the last few days, like everyone there, I was seeking fresh ideas, personal renewal, and an enhanced network of resources and colleagues. Our presence there united us in song, in study, and in hope that our efforts would bear fruit in the coming months, and that challenging moments that might darken our spirits would give way to a shining sun of learning and love. In our congregation and in many others, we will continue on a common journey as partners in growing our character and our wisdom. May we do so, always, together.
See more about Tiffany Schlain at www.letitripple.org
Photos from the closing ceremony for NewCAJE 8 at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA