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Friday, 10 August, 2018 - 1:24 pm

In a small town in Poland called Chelm, there lived some of the wisest fools this world has ever known. The people of Chelm adored the moon that shone down on them every night—well, almost every night. They often stood outside their doors, no matter how cold, no matter how much snow, to gaze at their moon. They stared, watching in wonder as their moon waxed and waned. Some nights the moon was merely a silvery sliver. Other nights it was fat and full, blazing down on them like heaven's spotlight.

But once a month there came a night when the moon disappeared altogether. On those nights, the people of Chelm stood outside searching the dark sky in vain.

One night, when the moon had vanished, a wise man named Shlomo finally lost his patience.

"We love our moon!" he cried. "It's lovely up there. Why does it do this to us every month? Why does it go away?"

When the other wise men of Chelm heard these words, they nodded. They had each been thinking the same thing.

"Yes, why?" Mordecai asked.

"It should remain with us," added Jerzy.

"We've always been kind to the moon; why does it hurt us so?" Morris complained.

At last, the wisest began to smile. "I have an idea," Shlomo said softly. "I think I know how we can fix this

"We'll capture the moon," he said. "And once we have captured it, we shall have it forever—full and radiant every night of the month, month after month."

Naturally, the wise men all agreed, and since they were wise, they knew they needed a practical plan. They agreed to meet in the morning. Over a nice, big breakfast, they would come up with a scheme. The wise men of Chelm always thought best over a meal.

The next morning, the wives of the wise men of Chelm, understanding the important business at hand, prepared a breakfast of salmon, eggs, herring, bagels, honey and tea.

The wise men ate heartily. Thinking is hard work. When they finished, they wiped their mouths and began to think.

At noon they were done, and they knew just what to do.

Each month, on the clearest night, the wise men had seen the moon in the town’s well. They understood this must be the moon's favorite spot to visit. This month, when the moon visited the well, they would gather round and clamp a cement cover over it. Thus, they would capture the moon!

The wise men of Chelm called a meeting of all the people to announce their plan. "We shall be prepared," Shlomo said. "We all must keep our eyes open. When the moon appears in the well, we shall capture it there!"

"Agreed!" the people cried, grateful for their wise leaders.

On the night the moon was fullest, they hurried to the well, and there it was. They quietly gathered round, and the strongest among them, a fellow named Berek, lifted the cement cover and clamped it atop the well.

"We've caught the moon!" Jerzy announced, and the people began to celebrate. They sang, danced and feasted all through that wintry night. They didn't mind the cold or the snow. After all, they had captured the moon!

The next morning, the wise men gathered at the well to visit their dear friend, the moon.

"We have captured the moon, but we need to tell it we wish it only joy," Morris said. Together, they lifted the lid and looked inside.

The moon was gone!

"What's this?" Jerzy cried.

"Someone has stolen the moon!" Morris shouted.

Now they realized there was a thief among them. One of the Chelm residents must be responsible for the moon’s disappearance every month.

"Of course, that's it!" they all agreed. "We have a moon thief in our midst. We'll have to find him."

They understood they would have to put their heads together to figure out a plan for finding the culprit. "We'll need another feast!" they agreed.

So once more, the wives of the wise men of Chelm went to their kitchens to work.

This Shabbat, when we read the Torah portion of Re’eh, is also Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month of Elul. The moon is hidden in the beginning of the Hebrew month.

The 16th century Rabbi Yehuda Lowe of Prague, known as the Maharal, offered his own explanation for this.

The Talmud gives reasons why G-d established nature in such a way that there would be solar eclipses. If people did not sin, we would merit eternal light. However, because G-d knew people would sin, He created the world in such a way that solar eclipses would happen. The Talmud is not offering the reason for a solar eclipse (which is nature) but the reason behind the reason, why nature is that way. The Maharal acknowledged that an eclipse is a mechanical and predictable event, but he further suggested that if there was no sin, there would indeed never be a solar eclipse. G-d would have designed the universe differently, and in this hypothetical sin-free universe our solar system would have been created without the possibility for a solar eclipse.

The 16th century Rabbi of Prague, Frankfurt, and Jerusalem, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the Shalah, explained that since G-d knows the future, including future sins, He set up the eclipses in advance during times when He knew people would sin.

Both of these approaches are difficult.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that sin does not cause eclipses. Rather, G-d set up different times and seasons in history when certain natural phenomena mirror the fact that these times have an energy, a force we must be aware of.

Some people get depressed when winter arrives; some get into a bad mood when fall comes; some cannot stand the heat of summer. Some people wake up at night, and can only paint, write, or think at night. According to Judaism, time is not homogeneous. G-d invested different energies and forces in different seasons and times.

For example, the Talmud teaches that people born on different days of the week are prone to certain dispositions. There are other examples of good and bad seasons of time. Certain times are more prone to helping someone one way or another. “Most of a person’s wisdom is gained through study at night,” says the Rambam. This does not mean that you can’t study by day! It means that there is an energy in the “night,” when the world is asleep, that is uniquely conducive for learning Torah and acquiring wisdom.

This does not contradict a fundamental principle of Jewish thought, that human beings have free will. “Freedom is granted to every person,” whether to be righteous or the opposite states the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers. 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 mistakes, sins, errors, transgressions, and punishment. The eclipse itself does not necessarily mean that people will act on that predisposition and actual sin, thereby causing punishment. Rather, it is a generous warning: Take care at this time. Put more effort into doing good. Avoid situations that may tax your moral fortitude. The eclipses are an indication of trying times when there is a natural predisposition for human weakness, for the soul’s light to become dimmer.

This is a powerful point. You know how sometimes you “wake up on the wrong side?” You know how some days you are just in a bad mood, you are not in the mood of your spouse, your children, your friends… not even yourself!

Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, you have to realize that this is part of the plan! Sometimes there is a certain energy in the world, in the day, in the night, in the month, that really dims us. We need not blame ourselves, judge ourselves, or get angry at ourselves. Sometimes are simply trying. There are moments in life when our inner sun or moon, our inner light, gets eclipsed….

What is my role at such a time? No need to judge and get angry. I need to acknowledge it in its rawness, but also be aware that I am not a slave to it; I am not a victim. I have full freedom of how to behave.

Maimonides, one of the greatest sages of the Middle Ages, wrote at the outset of his “laws of repentance”: “Free will is bestowed on every human being. If one desires to turn toward a good way and be righteous, he has the power to do so. If one wishes to turn toward the evil way and be wicked, he is at liberty to do so… this doctrine is an essential principle, the pillar of the Torah and Mitzvot.”

This is surely the reconciliation between the two clashing axioms of Judaism: That G-d has no image, and that man is made in the image of G-d. The conclusion, as certain as it is powerful, is that man, too, has no image. Unlike all else in creation, he has no fixed essence, no fated and ordained character, no inexorable destiny. He is only what he chooses to be, and if he so chooses, he can change.

This is why the Talmud concludes that if we follow the Divine will, we must never fear any heavenly omens or signs, any eclipses. Even as the light is eclipsed, the sun remains as is. Its light is not compromised; it is just blocked. Even when our light is eclipsed, it is still always there. We must never doubt it!

You are more powerful than all your eclipses.

May you be inscribed for a Happy & Healthy Year!

Shabbat Shalom and a Happy New Month,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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