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Beyond the Cosmos

As I am sure you know, we in St Louis will enjoy the rare experience of a total eclipse of the sun on Monday, August 21. A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon's apparent diameter is larger than the sun's, blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness.

The last total solar eclipse in St Louis occurred in 1442! The longest duration of totality will be 2 minutes 41.6 seconds, just south of us in Carbondale, Illinois.

Most of us have learned its scientific explanation, and we will surely hear it often. But we experience it as more than a scientific phenomenon, either as a religious experience, a spiritual experience, or an aesthetic experience. In part, that allure is the rarity of its appearance.

To add to this experience, I cite the great religious teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel (God in Search of Man, chapter 9):

“Science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science. Science deals with relations among things within the universe, but man is endowed with the concern of the spirit, and the spirit deals with the relation between the universe and God. Science seeks the truth about the universe; the spirit seeks the truth that is greater than the universe.”

We should acknowledge that our scientific and philosophic approaches have been conditioned . Heschel goes back to our Greek roots to explain how we think today. Do we think more Greekly than Jewishly?

“To the Greek mind the universe is the sum and substance of all there is; even the gods are part of, rather than the cause of the universe … In contrast, the Biblical mind is deeply aware that the ultimate, God, is beyond the given.

“To the Greeks as to many other peoples, the earth is generally known as Mother Earth. She is the mother who sends up fruits, the giver of children, and to her men return at death … The adoration of the beauty and abundance of the earth in Greek literature is tinged with a sense of gratefulness to the earth for her gifts to man.

“One of the great achievements of the prophets was the repudiation of nature as an object of adoration. They tried to teach us that neither nature’s beauty nor grandeur, neither power nor the state, neither money nor things of space are worthy of our supreme adoration, love, sacrifice, or self-dedication. Yet the de-sanctification of nature did not in any way bring about an alienation of nature. It brought men together with all things in a fellowship of praise."

Heschel’s point is that science is not the ultimate. The totality of the cosmos is alien to Torah. Yet, this does not mean a rejection of nature. Our Torah tradition brings creation and God together.

In our daily religious services we celebrate nature as God’s wondrous creation – first with a berachah praising God, the Creator of light and darkness, indeed of everything. And then we incorporate the words from Psalm 104, “How wondrous are Your deeds, O Lord.” And the liturgy adds that every day God renews creation; these are powerful words to incorporate. We are invited to see not only the rare extraordinary events, but God’s active daily renewal of creation.

Religion seeks to teach meaning. Some religious teachings, Jewish and Christian, regarded the eclipse of the sun, the growing darkening as a bad omen.

But incorporating our science, I offer the following: The eclipse is the convergence of the orbits of the sun, moon, and earth. Each have their own path, yet this total eclipse enables us to see how spectacular beauty is possible when we work together. Praise God for enabling us to gain a glimpse of what could be.

As we view the eclipse, we should, praising God, recite the berachah: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, oseh ma'aseh v'reishit -- Praised are You, God, our Lord, Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of creation.

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