This coming Monday, August 21, a solar eclipse will be visible, partly or in its totality, over much of North America. The next day, we will celebrate the New Moon of the Jewish month of Elul, the last month of the year 5777. Are these two astronomical events connected? And if so, what does it mean?
Yes, they are connected. The moon, in its dance with the sun through a month, always has a dark time when we cannot see it at all. That followed by the “new moon” when a sliver of the moon’s sunlit side appears in the sky, shortly after sunset. But the dark moon does not usually result in an eclipse; that only happens when the sun and moon are aligned from a certain earthly point of view (the “path” of the eclipse). That unique alignment is happening just before Elul’s new moon.
What does it mean? We are told that in ancient times people were awed by eclipses and feared them as omens. Not so in Judaism — our priests and rabbis knew that this was an astronomical phenomenon. Nevertheless, they also knew that the world is a divine creation, and that the connection between our own lives and the phenomena of nature can inspire us. For example, the Torah tells us to set up our calendar by the moon. Our Sages then used the moon’s waxing and waning to help us understand the cycles of good and bad times for the Jewish people.
Our tradition also describes each lunar month as having its own unique character within the annual round of moons. The month of Elul is cherished as a time of teshuvah, “return.,” in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. As we begin to look back on the past year and prepare for the new one, it is a time conducive to reflection and introspection.
Elul is also the month when “the King is in the field,” as a traditional parable puts it. Rather than having to approach God in the palace amid pomp and ceremony, one can experience God out in the fields, among the people, open to prayers in a different way, recognizing our trouble and pain outside the restraints of the great system of halls and chambers that organizes cosmic energy. For us, it is a time of repentance because we are asked to be humble too, and step out of the frameworks that we use to organize our lives, to meet the king in the fields.
The word Elul is spelled alef-lamed-vav-lamed. These letters also make an acronym for a famous verse in the Song of Songs (6:3): Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li, which means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The relationship between God and us is like that of lover and beloved in that beautiful biblical poem, where also the two sometimes celebrate their coming together and sometimes are apart, yearning for one another.
This resonates with the traditional symbolism where the sun represents the divine and the moon the Jewish people. Astrologically speaking, sun and moon move in ways that are sometimes close, sometimes far. They are closest together at the dark of the moon, but we cannot see it. Metaphorically, our relationship to God in this darkness is largely behind the scenes, even unconscious.
But in a total eclipse, where the sun is covered by the moon during the daytime, their relationship is out in the open, so to speak. Yet the sky will darken, because the moon hides the sun’s light. In an uncanny shift of roles, the brilliant sun retreats, highlighting the moon and the darkness.
We can see, though, that the moon even in her “darkest” moment has within her the greatness that can cover the sun. So with us: when the “light of day” is hidden, this is when we as human beings must become more aware of our potential, to bring forth what must be born from the darkness.
The month of Elul asks us to look back at the past year – our personal lives, our communities, Israel, the world. Certainly public life has been stunning for those of us living in the USA, where the eclipse will largely be seen; a dramatic eclipse is in many ways a fitting metaphor for the past year.
At the same time, Elul reminds us to look forward, to remember and anticipate our connection with God. As the New Moon emerges we can ask how we can increase the light. But also, remembering the eclipse, we can ask how to be shown the potential of the dark times, consciously encountering the hidden parts of ourselves, and liberating those resources for good.
Good Chodesh! May you have a good month!