The Torah’s opening chapter presents a creation story in seven days. The fourth of these days is occupied with God’s creation of “two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night.” The punctuation of the traditional Hebrew text has an etnachta, the long pause I just represented as a semicolon. By Talmudic times, our sages imagined that the creation of the sun and moon came in two phases: first two great lights, and only after they existed—if but for a brief moment—did one become “greater” and one become “lesser.”
To this day, there is a tradition to greet the waxing moon each month with Kiddush Levana, a blessing for renewing the months, and a wish that the moon’s diminution be restored to that moment when there were simply two great lights. In Jewish tradition, the moon is associated with all that has been diminished, so it is a symbol of our hopefulness that being made to feel small is a temporary state; just as the moon’s light returns each month, so light can always emerge from darkness.
The idea of two coequal lights might sound magical or just plain unscientific, but this summer gives us another perspective: even though 65 million moons can fit into the volume of the sun, to our eyes the sun and the moon appear to be the same size. The proof, of course, is that the moon can eclipse the sun! Since the Talmud imagined eclipses as bad omens, the blessing that we typically say over other wonders of the natural world “Blessed is the One Who does the work of creation,” is not associated with an eclipse the way it is with witnessing lightning or meteor showers.
What is particularly exciting about this month’s solar eclipse is that it ushers in the month of Elul, the last month of the Jewish calendar before we greet the new year. While the moon would not be a light at all were it not for the sun illuminating it, perhaps it is the moon’s reflection of the sun’s light that allows the sun to be even greater. So even though the scientists in us may not believe that we are subject to astrological influence, we can still appreciate this rare opportunity in the life of the Solar System to initiate the season for inner reflection of our hearts and spirits.