THERE GOES THE SUN: Jewish perspective on the total eclipse, and the Chabad rabbi in Carbondale who’s at the center of it all

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

No, Judaism does not proclaim a total solar eclipse an evil portent or source of fear and loathing.

Rather, a two-plus-minute blackout of the sun by the passing moon has been passed down via scripture and custom as a prompter for Jews to better themselves, to be the best they can be.

Aiding in that effort is Rabbi Mendel Scheiman, director of Chabad at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Scheiman is at ground zero of the appearance of the total eclipse on Monday, Aug. 21, as it traverses the United States from northwest to southeast.  It is the first solar eclipse in over a century that will be visible in the contiguous United States.

Cardondale is the only city in Illinois where the total eclipse can be viewed, for 2 minutes, 43 seconds, at 1:20 p.m. Thousands will descend on the college town to view the celestial spectacle. SIU has long been known for a party-hearty atmosphere. But now the area, always known as Little Egypt, will be transformed into a science center with NASA recording images and other data unavailable elsewhere.

Although Carbondale, which Scheiman calls a “little big city,” is almost a half day’s drive from the Chicago area, the commute is a straight shot south on Interstate 57, then west on Illinois Route 13. For those leaving the driving to others, Amtrak runs direct trains several times daily. If the travel and time off is too much, some 80 to 90 percent of the eclipse will be viewable around Chicago, but still requiring protective glasses or other devices to ward off eye damage.

Amid the bustle of a small city likely stretched beyond its limits of lodging and other services with a projected 50,000 visitors, Chabad is extending its hospitality and Jewish sensibility via Shabbat celebrations in the weekend preceding the eclipse. In addition, those who do not want to watch the eclipse among an expected crowd of 10,000 at Saluki Stadium can view it in a more intimate setting with Scheiman and Co. at the Chabad House’s back yard.

The eclipse will be the highest-profile event putting Chabad’s mission to the test. “At SIU and at all major schools, the Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins are a home away from home. A beacon of light, warmth and family,” said Rabbi Meir Moscowitz, regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois and rabbi of Lubavitch Chabad of Northbrook.

Interestingly, Chabad can use the four-day weekend soiree as a role model for 2024. Yet another eclipse will visit Carbondale seven years hence – rated by astronomers as less than a 1 percent chance occurring in the same location so close in time.

“I first found out about this two or three years ago,” said Scheiman. “I got in touch with the (SIU) physics department. They were doing a promotional event to make Carbondale the place to see it. Not just because we’re on the path of totality, but because we’ve got one of the longest durations of totality. We’re the eclipse crossroads of America.”

Carbondale’s long-time town synagogue, Beth Jacob, a hybrid Conservative-Reform institution established in 1945, is inviting eclipse attendees for Friday night services. Scheiman has a cooperative relationship with Beth Jacob.

“We’re suggesting to people to make it a more meaningful event, as it’s (for many) a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Scheiman said. “Do something positive. We sent out cards to encourage people to pick a good deed to do, and do an extra mitzvah – contribute to a charity, say an extra prayer. When the world goes dark, we’re increasing the light.”

And that’s the Jewish moral of the story of eclipses, going back to the beginning of civilization. Observing, recording and categorizing the behavior of heavenly bodies goes back to Abraham.

Tracing the Jewish back story of eclipses, Moscowitz cited Genesis 1:14: “When G-d created the world, He created ‘signs in the heavens.’”

Scheiman points to an article on chabad.org which says that the sages of the Talmud said “When the luminaries are stricken, it is an ill omen for the world. To what can we compare this? To a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and set a lantern to illuminate the hall. But then he became angry with them and said to his servant: ‘Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.’ The Talmud then goes on to describe the particular sins for which the luminaries are stricken.

“What is puzzling about that is that the predictability of eclipses was already well known in Talmudic times (the Talmud was completed in the 5th century in Babylonia). And aside from the prevalent scientific knowledge of the day, the sages of the Talmud were well aware of how to calculate eclipses due to their meticulous astronomical calculations for sanctifying the new Jewish month. (Trivia: A solar eclipse can only occur around the time of a new month on the Jewish lunar calendar.)

“This leads to the obvious question: How could the sages of the Talmud state that an eclipse is a bad omen caused by our sins? They knew that an eclipse is predictable. But they also certainly believed that sins are not predictable!

“To make things yet more puzzling, the Midrash Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer — which predates the Talmud — takes both sides of the coin: that eclipses are both a natural astronomical phenomenon as well as a bad sign!

“The most simple explanation: An eclipse is not caused by sin. Rather, it is an indication of a trying time, a time when there is a natural predisposition for sin, and for strict judgment of that sin.

“Time, in traditional thought, is not homogeneous. The Talmud provides many other examples of the good and bad seasons of time. Certain times are a better opportunity to take specific action. ‘Most of a person’s wisdom is achieved only at night.’ Similarly, the early morning is considered an auspicious time for prayer to be received. Being born at certain times creates a predilection for a specific mode of behavior—for good or for the opposite.

“This does not contradict a fundamental principle of Jewish thought, that human beings have free will. ‘Freedom is granted to every person,’ states the Mishnah, whether to be righteous or the opposite.

“If so, it is impossible that your innate predisposition should draw you immutably to good or bad; rather, the sign under which you are born merely creates within you a proclivity toward certain behaviors. With effort, you can overcome your natural tendencies, and even transform them.

“The same is true regarding eclipses and other ‘signs in the heavens.’ When G-d created the world, He created signs in the heavens for people to be aware of times when there would be a greater predisposition for sin and punishment. The eclipse itself does not necessarily mean that people will act on that predisposition and actually sin, thereby causing punishment. Rather, it is a warning: Take care at this time. Put more effort into doing good. Avoid situations that may tax your moral fortitude.

“Which explains why there is no blessing for witnessing an eclipse, even though there are blessings for natural phenomena such as lightning, thunder, rainbows and earthquakes. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explained that eclipses are meant to be opportunities for increasing in prayer and introspection, as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, and so we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.

“In the creation story at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the Torah states, ‘And G-d said, ‘Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens … and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years.’ The classic commentaries explain that ‘they shall be for signs’ is a reference to eclipses. Thus, we learn that these phenomena are meant to be a sign for us.

“At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah proclaims, ‘Hearken to the word that the Lord spoke about you, O house of Israel . . . So says the Lord: ‘Of the way of the nations you shall not learn, and from the signs of the heaven be not dismayed…’”

In other words, these are indeed ‘signs in the heavens,’ yet the prophet tells us that we should not fear them, for, as the sages of the Talmud explain, as long as one acts properly, there is nothing to fear.”

Rabbi Mendel Scheiman

Moscowitz said the rare, perfect alignment of the moon and sun relates to what some scientists have conceded in mixing their craft with a taste of religion: “intelligent design.”  The universe logically seems random, but the movements and action of sun, moon, stars and planets upon each other another suggests otherwise.

“Everything in (and out of) this world points to something higher and a spiritual reality,” said Moscowitz. “Ultimately the most important is how one acts here on earth — which is in our hands.”

Eclipses also occur based on the waxing and waning of the moon, the same process governing the Jewish calendar.

“The Jewish people are compared to the moon,” said Moscowitz. “Like the moon, the fate of the Jewish nation has waxed and waned throughout history. Yet we are still here to tell the tale.”

He agreed one of the best examples of such waxing and waning was the deaths of six million Jews in the Holocaust ending in 1945, preceding the re-creation of the state of Israel just three years later.

Eclipses also have enabled man to better employ G-d-given gifts of reasoning and analysis to better understand the universe. Albert Einstein, one of history’s most prominent Jews, predicted in his theory of relativity that gravity could bend the path of light. The effect was only slight in everyday observation. An exception to the norm was needed to verify Einstein. Astronomer Sir. Arthur Eddington later discovered the effect of the sun’s gravity on light via an eclipse, proving Einstein right.

Back on terra firma, the concerns of day-to-day life at SIU and Carbondale, always a home for scores of Chicago-area students, do not require an Einstein to solve. Common sense, advance planning and a sense of civility are necessary to get through the big party.

“They’re telling locals to do their shopping before and stay off the roads (closer to the event),” Scheiman said. “There is going to be traffic jams we’re not used to down here. Don’t clog up the roads and stores. We don’t know what will happen.”

Aug. 21 was supposed to be first day of fall-semester classes at SIU. But officials avoided a massive congestion nightmare by delaying the start and move-in day, which would have lured countless parents and made the congestion even worse.

“All the hotels have been booked months in advance,” said Scheiman. Chabad does not have the ability to put up guests. Scheiman is already hosting several family members.

“I’ve got a lot of phone calls where people are saying, ‘Maybe you know of a place? We just started looking, there’s no place to go.’  The Jewish community of Carbondale is pretty small (300) and the Jewish student population (another 300) is small. I did ask around, but everybody is already hosting a friend or family.”

The eclipse already has proven to be a lesson in Judaism and life for the oldest two of Scheiman’s children.  Shneur, 5, and Hindy, 3, already have tried on protective glasses.   Chaim, 1, won’t have a conscious memory of the event. He’ll have to wait until 2024.

“They hear us talking about it and they hear people asking about it,” Scheiman said. “We tell them it will be dark and the sun will be covered over for a few minutes.”

The kids are growing up in a town that, other than the university’s more liberal influence, could be as Southern in outlook as Dixie itself. Carbondale is as physically far south as Richmond, Va., with summer heat and humidity to match. Kentucky is just a short drive away.

But Scheiman doesn’t mind the closeness to the “Green Acres” motif. He even uses what could be an eclipse metaphor to describe his assignment.

“That’s the mission, to be the light in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “That’s the Chabad motto – to go out there and reach every Jew no matter which city, which town.  After a while, you get used to it, you like the quiet town. No traffic, no noise, no busy stuff.

“At times you feel like you’re missing out on a big Jewish community.  Then, again, that’s part of the mission. That’s part of the mission, that’s part of our goal. We do it happily.”

And so, he tries to sketch out a perspective to show the amazing relationship of the universe to man and G-d, with a dash of astronomy and a larger dollop of classic Judaism.

“The sun is 400 times larger than the moon. So how does the moon eclipse the sun? The moon is an exact position to be in perfect cover to block the sun.

“And it’s the position of the Earth to the sun. If we were a little bit closer, we’d be toast. If we’re a little bit further, we’d be frozen. If the moon was closer to us, it’d pull the ocean tides too high. If it would be further away, things would be wobbly. Everything is so perfect, so exact.  Science doesn’t tell you why it happened, just what’s happened.

“So Abraham (charting the heavens) said there must be an intelligent designer, a creator to the world. In an eclipse, that’s when you have a perfect alignment of the Earth, moon and sun.  That leads to the question, ‘Am I aligned in this picture as well? How do I fit in to this creation?’ That’s where I go with the eclipse.”

The last word on the subject goes to Moscowitz.

“The greatness of light is revealed through the darkness,” he said.  “Two minutes and 43 seconds of darkness highlights the power of light that can overcome and withstand all darkness.”

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