SEEING GOD’S CREATIVE POWER IN THE ECLIPSE
Sermon for Rosh Hashanah 2017 | Lenny Levin
If we were celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Second Temple or Mishnaic times, 1900 or 2000 years ago, the day for the holiday would have been set by a rabbinic court accepting the testimony of witnesses who had seen the first appearance of the new moon after the moon passed from one side of the sun to the other. In other words, Rosh Hashanah always occurs at the beginning of the lunar month. On rare occasions, as we know, the moon passes directly in front of the sun, causing a solar eclipse. That happened exactly one lunar month ago, on August 21. I find it paradoxical that even though today is the day we celebrate the creation of the world, it was one month ago that we saw direct evidence of God’s creative activity, and some of us on that day recited the blessing, “Who performs the work of creation,” oseh ma’aseh bereshit.
What’s in a blessing? Jews say blessings on many occasions. There are blessings for breaking bread, for drinking wine, for getting up in the morning, for performing various sacred actions such as lighting candles or studying the Torah. There are also blessings for observing the wonders of nature, such as a rainbow or the ocean. The daily and holiday prayers are themselves made up primarily of blessings celebrating God’s relationship to the world and to us.
Blessing God is a quintessentially Jewish gesture. It expresses our gratitude and wonder for existence itself, for our own lives that we experience as a gift, and for all the little things that comprise them.
The rabbis said that whoever eats without blessing God first is guilty of stealing God’s bounty. But once we acknowledge the divine source of the good things that we enjoy, we are permitted to partake of them.
I don’t want to get bogged down into theological quibbling over just how much divine intervention is implied by the act of blessing. If I eat an apple and say borei pri ha-etz, I’m not saying that God took particular care to produce that very apple. I am simply acknowledging gratitude to God for existence in general, of which this apple is a small part. We could say in general that a blessing expresses wonder and gratitude for the gift of being as refracted through a particular experience.
So when we blessed God at the eclipse as oseh ma’aseh bereshit, we are not saying that God took time out of His busy schedule to supervise this eclipse, but rather we are expressing wonder at the regularity of nature as a manifestation of God’s wisdom, a regularity that we can glimpse even in such exceptional events as a solar eclipse.
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That said, there is still something amazing and breathtaking in the sight of an eclipse, for those who were able to see it. Like Moses at the burning bush, we are called to turn aside and wonder: how strange and awesome is this event!
Consider the fact that the apparent size of the moon as viewed from earth is just exactly the right size to conceal the sun completely for a few brief minutes, then pass on and reveal once more the edge of the sun’s surface. Is this just an obvious given, like 2 + 2 = 4? Or is there something extraordinary in this fact?
Actually, if you consider what the corresponding sight would be if we were on Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, or Uranus, when one of their moons passed in front of the sun, they are really quite different. (Jupiter’s larger moons create solar eclipses but they actually appear larger than the sun because the sun is so much more distant from Jupiter. Mars’s moons are tiny in comparison.) The view of a solar eclipse on Earth is unique for our solar system, and probably quite rare for planetary and lunar systems in the universe generally. All the moons of other planets in our own Solar System are much smaller than their respective planets. It is unusual for a small planet like Earth to have a large moon, almost big enough to be a smaller sibling planet. And the fact that we have a large moon has been very important for the development of the Earth as a planet, and for life on Earth.
If truth be told, I am far more concerned about the question of the frequency and distribution of life in the universe than I am about how many planets have large moons. But I was surprised to learn, when reading up on recent astronomical findings during last month’s eclipse, that the two questions are actually related. Large moons paired with small planets are probably rare in the universe. Life is probably rare in the universe. But a large moon paired with a small planet (such as Earth) increases the chances that there will be life.
When I say rare, it is of course relative. To give you some idea, astronomers today estimate that there are about a trillion trillion stars in the observable universe. Let us say that only one in a trillion stars has life. That would still give you a trillion stars with life.
But even if there are a trillion stars with life, that doesn’t mean we should value our planet Earth any the less. It is, after all, our planet. And it still moves me to wonder. I invite you to join me in that feeling!
If I may draw an analogy, there are over a billion women on this planet, but I am married to only one of them. I don’t love her less because there are a billion others. She’s the only one I am married to. And I will make the most of the opportunity I have to make a life together with her. She is special to me. And Earth is special to all of us.
Let me push the analogy yet another step. I am the person I am today because of the relationship I have had with Margie for the many years we have spent together. And believe it or not, the Earth is what it is today because of the four billion year old relationship it has had with its moon.
If you find that hard to believe, just hear me out.
What, then, are the characteristics that make the Earth special?
Most important, it has life. But what characteristics of Earth are important to support life?
First of all, it must keep a stable average temperature in the range where water will be in a liquid state—say, between 32 degrees and 110 degrees Fahrenheit. To be sure, being the right distance from the Sun is a primary cause of this feature. But it’s insufficient (the moon doesn’t maintain moderate temperature, for a variety of reasons—it’s freezing there, let me tell you!).
Second, the Earth must have a moderately rapid rate of rotation or spin, causing frequent alternation of day and night. Incidentally, this is one very helpful factor toward maintaining moderate and stable temperatures on most of its surface.
Third, the axis of rotation must be stable in orientation. In the case of Earth, it is not only stable but moderately tilted at 23½ degrees, which produces the alternation of seasons that we are so fond of—not absolutely required for life, but a stimulus to the evolution of the species.
Fourth, it is very important that the Earth maintain an atmosphere, to provide gases that help support life, and that those gases be in the right proportion to regulate the temperature in the moderate range.
Fifth, we all agree that a combination of land and water zones is very characteristic of Earth, and more specifically, the phenomenon of plate tectonics, whereby continental plates move across the earth’s surface, interacting with the molten lava layer beneath it. The more that geologists study this phenomenon, the more they discover it interacts strongly with the maintenance of the earth’s atmosphere and thermal stability.
Another important feature is the tidal pressure on the oceans. This stimulates oceanic currents and contributes to thermal stability and the evolution of life.
Finally, we must mention the earth’s magnetic field. This is produced by the molten iron core at the center of the earth, in conjunction with the earth’s rotation.
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Amazingly all of these characteristics are at least somewhat dependent on the presence of a large moon as Earth’s mate, or the history of the moon-producing event 4 billion years ago.
If you want the details, I refer you to two books that I have been enjoying since the eclipse: Rare Earth by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, and Alone in the Universe by John Gribben.
Just to give you some examples to support these claims:
According to current theory, a little over 4 billion years ago there were two planets that shaped the earth’s orbit. They collided, and the moon was formed from the debris of that collision. The collision set the Earth spinning, thus accounting for the alternation of day and night (a feature that is unusual among the small rocky planets of our Solar System). The collision also tilted the earth’s axis, causing the alternation of the seasons. But the tilt has remained fairly stable over four billion years, due to the moon’s continuing strong gravitational embrace of the Earth. If the Earth had no moon, and its axis came to be tilted 90 degrees horizontally, or if it meandered chaotically, the effects on living beings would be potentially disastrous.
The initial collision also contributed a double portion of iron to the Earth’s core, which (together with the spinning) helps account for the earth’s robust magnetic field.
At the same time, the Earth lost a substantial portion of its outer crust to the moon. The resulting thinness of the remaining crust facilitates abundant volcanic activity and continental drift. Volcanic activity contributes carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, while continental drift facilitates absorption of carbon dioxide by limestone and other rock types; together, they help regulate the level of atmospheric gases, which helps overall to maintain thermal stability.
Finally, the tides maintain a buffer zone between the oceans and land, facilitating the evolution of life and the transitioning of living creatures from one habitat to the other.
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So why am I telling you all this?
I’m sure there are at least some skeptics in this room who will say: So what? If I was trying to prove that all this must have been God’s specific purpose, to bring about the conditions for life by these marvelous mechanisms, the proof is flawed. For all this could have come about by accident. A very improbable set of accidents, but if you throw the dice a trillion trillion times, you’re bound to come up with some winners.
And the skeptics would be right. As a proof, this line of reasoning is inconclusive.
But that’s not my purpose.
My purpose is to deepen the sense of wonder that we already are entitled to have by virtue of just being here, being alive, in a world where the sun shines and the moon passes through its phases, and once in a long while the moon covers up the sun for a brief few minutes. The rest is extra.
I already feel God’s purpose just from being here, alive and with you all. Knowing that the moon made our being here possible is just an added bonus, additional evidence of God’s goodness—and an excuse to say another bracha.
No matter whether we are the only life-bearing planet in the universe or one of a few thousands or millions (or billions), we should treat the rare good fortune of our planet’s life capacity as a precious treasure. It is our planet. That life came forth on it is a miracle, any way you look at it. So many factors had to come together to make it possible. We are the only planet with advanced life in our field of observation, but that isn’t saying much, because we can only really observe effectively within the immediate region of our Milky Way galaxy. Still, it is our planet, and we are responsible for it. It is up to us to maintain its life capacity and not squander it. (We will hear more on this theme in other talks this holiday season.)
But for now, let’s all say shehecheyanu to thank God for giving us life and bringing us to this occasion:
Barukh atta Adonai eloheinu melekh ha-olam, shehecheyanu ve-kiyemanu ve-higiyanu la-zman ha-zeh.