This was a busy summer. A lovely summer but a busy one. Family reunions, weddings, and trips to Brooklyn filled many of my days while I was away. And the eclipse of course. By far, however, my very favorite was the couple of jaunts out to Brooklyn to see my son Aiden’s first post-college piece of theatre: directing a production of Macbeth.
Housed in a tiny 50-seat performance space, this was part of an ongoing Shakespearean festival that required his cast and set to move in and out without much set-up or breakdown. So Aiden devised a strategy that eliminated the need for any set at all: the entire production was performed in darkness, ostensibly in a post-apocalyptic, underground future with flashlights their only source of illumination. Not merely practical, Aiden’s lighting strategy offered a powerful underscoring to Shakespeare’s extensive use of light imagery in his dialogue. Here are a few examples:
• Macbeth, as he considers eliminating his king, says: “Let not light see my black and deep desires.”
• Lady Macbeth, as she ponders the advantages of the couple’s murderous plot, petitions: “Come, thick night, and pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell, that my keen knife see not the wound it makes.”
• And Banquo, formerly Macbeth’s friend and partner, soon to be his next victim, tells his son, “There’s husbandry in heaven; their candles are all out.”
I’ll have to ask Aiden if he was thinking about this past Monday’s solar eclipse when he was putting the show together, but I certainly was. Passing across the entire country, the eclipse divided our nation in two as effectively as any current politics have done. And while one may have thought that this would be one science lesson on which everyone would agree, our president ignored about ten million warnings that we’d all heard not to stare directly at it and, in so doing, not only burned the memory of his ill-informed action into his retinas but into the whole internet as well as the press eagerly snapped photos of him leading the way into continued blindness of much of the American public.
I’ll come back to that.
Ellen and I were flying home from the west coast on Monday so I thought that we’d either miss viewing the eclipse altogether or we’d get a chance to view it from the airplane. I purchased five pairs of approved sunglasses just in case. At the LA airport, after we checked our bags, Ellen pulled me back out to the curb so that we could view the eclipse before heading down to our gate.
And that’s where the truly special part of the eclipse began. First of all, everything I read leading up to Monday seemed to indicate that if you weren’t standing along the path of the complete eclipse why even bother looking up at all? Which is probably why she and I were among the very, very few at the airport in possession of the proper sunglasses. As we stood on the curb looking up at this incredible phenomenon (and don’t ever let anyone tell you that a partial eclipse isn’t worth watching), a police officer sauntered over to us. Before he could say, “Move along,” I said to him, “You know you want to look through our glasses.” And for the next twenty minutes or so, the three of us took turns not only viewing the eclipse but stopping others – airport employees and folks getting out of taxis – and inviting them to borrow our glasses as well. The best was stopping suspicious parents whose children pretty much snatched our glasses, their parents then excited to get a turn as well. We ended up gifting our entire set to a family that was grateful for our allowing them to enjoy this historic moment.
The eclipse reminded us what a magnificent world it is that we live in, causing us to take a step back, to gawk a bit at the impressiveness of nature, and to open ourselves to sharing the natural beauty of the world around us. Tzimtzum our tradition calls it. “Making ourselves a bit smaller” to make room for something else. God performed tzimtzum in order to allow nature to come into existence. And everyone on that curb, and probably across a lot of America, performed tzimtzum as well in order to make room in our overly-busy lives for something very special, both up in the sky and in the sharing that was going on right next to us.
All this on the heels of Charlottesville, a day which demonstrated some of the very worst of what America has recently become. In petty and painful acts, white supremacists performed the exact opposite of tzimtzum, puffing themselves up and reducing the space available for others. A different kind of eclipse, the darkness in these folks’ hearts blotted out the daylight, something nobody wanted to witness. All we hoped for, and all we hope for, is the return of day.
“Their candles are all out,” said Banquo. Seduced by their basest of desires, the family Macbeth succumbed to the worst that was in them. America has always been populated by those who are incapable of performing tzimtzum. We have always shared this exquisite country with those who would have us leave it or, worse, would lynch and murder those they believe do not belong.
And while Banquo’s life was ultimately forfeit to Macbeth’s evil, others arose to take a powerful and principled stand against radical selfishness and hate. The sun may not have returned to Aiden’s Macbeth, but the light of freedom did.
Fortunately for us, the sun’s eclipse was only momentary. We have a few billion years before that light goes out. But the light of freedom? That will require much more of our attention. It’s quite possible we will differ in our approaches to dismantling the forces of hate that have been let loose across our nation. But it is clear as day to me that everyone bears responsibility for it. Sadly, there are abundant opportunities to make that stand. So choose one. Do not stand on the sidelines for this.
Here at Woodlands, we’ve begun a number of projects that you are welcome to join. Last night, we held our first gathering to learn how to accompany and support undocumented immigrants who have been detained by ICE. This is a non-violent, respectful, law-abiding path on which we can each stand in opposition to our nation’s brutal deportation surge. If this is the project that speaks to you, please come talk to me, or to Jonathan, or to Mara, or to our social action chairs, Roberta Roos and Joan Farber. We’d love to tell you more about it.
Also, we are continuing our outreach to Westchester’s Muslim community. It is so important that we meet Muslims and that they meet us. That we extend a hand in friendship, that we learn about each other, and that we offer support as they continue to brace themselves for the prejudice and bigoted mistreatment being directed their way. If this project speaks to you, please use it as your opportunity to speak to justice and freedom.
By the way, if you’re concerned for your own safety (and Charlottesville certainly presented the possibility of our being targeted by hate groups up here), one of the best strategies to protect ourselves is to build friendships with those who are currently under siege. This has always been the American Jewish community’s approach to keeping ourselves safe: protect the rights of other minorities, and we’ll be protecting our rights too.
In this week’s Torah parasha, Shoftim, the Israelites, freed from Egyptian slavery are learning what kind of nation they want to become. Rabbi Larry Hoffman teaches that God has instructed Israel to create an executive branch (the king), a legislative branch (the priesthood), and a judicial branch (the judges). Rabbi Hoffman points then out that the prophets came along to ensure that the nation’s system of checks and balances remained strong. Bringing the imagery home, he warns us that the prophets are gone so we must be the ones to preserve our nation’s democratic republic. “Even the best of governments fail,” he concludes, “if we do not attune our senses to catch the telltale signs of moral rot in our own backyard.”
We live in a remarkable world. It is filled with so much beauty, around us and within us. Let’s resolve to do everything we can to preserve that beauty, to protect a community of monarch butterflies whose habitat is being destroyed in Texas so that a wall of fear and resentment can begin there, and to protect too many communities whose habitats are also being destroyed by the building of walls around the heart. In this apocalyptic present where we now find ourselves, may we, under God’s guidance, kindle dazzling torches of love and inclusion, pushing away a night that has been long in coming, so that justice and our truly noble American way of life will never be eclipsed.
Postscript: In 1945, there was a light that destroyed everything it touched. At Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the only wartime use ever of nuclear weapons, atomic light ended 129,000 lives. That light may also have saved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. So, as is true in so much of life, pronouncing moral judgement isn’t easy.
Among the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you can find the ginkgos. These trees, whose roots reach far beneath the earth, were able to survive the devastation above not unlike the protagonists in Aiden’s post-apocalyptic Macbeth. Sadly, modernization may finally uproot the ginkgos, to make way for the machinery of urban life.
It can sometimes be confusing to recognize value of light and dark in our ever-changing, ever-challenging world. Even our prayers give thanks for the rest that comes with the night. So let’s teach one another, reflecting on the questions of our era, forming responses together, responses that consider what must be opposed – what must be pushed aside – to make room for goodness, compassion and love. Light and dark should be our allies. May we labor together to fashion a world in which that dream endures and, one day, finally comes true.