Weekly Sermon

Weekly Sermon

LECH LECHA 5780

How many of you believe in astrology—that your fate is written in the stars?...Ok, most of you won’t admit to believing in it, but—out of curiosity—if you’re reading a newspaper or magazine that has your horoscope, do you glance down just to see what might be in store for you?  

It seems that astrology is making a comeback. New Yorker Magazine (10/26/19) a couple of weeks ago featured this article, “Astrology in the Age of Uncertainty” with the subheading: “Millennials who see no contradiction between using astrology and believing in science are fueling a resurgence of the practice.” There’s now an astrology app called CoStar that has been downloaded 6 million times! Can an intelligent person believe in astrology without feeling ridiculous?

What does Judaism have to say about astrology? For some its origins go all the way back to the beginning. When Gd created the sun, the moon and the stars in the sky the Torah (Gen. 1:14) tells us Gd then said: “and they shall serve as signs…for festivals, for days and for years.” For some these “signs” have a message.

However, the Torah (Deut. 18:9-12) later teaches: “Let no one be found among you who...practices divinations, a m’oneyn, one who reads omens, a sorcerer, one casts spells...For anyone who does these things is abhorrent to Hashem...” According to Rabbi Akiva (Sifri 171) a m’oneyn is an astrologer. And lest you think astrology was not practiced by Jews, mosaics found on the floors of ancient synagogues in archeological sites in Israel, we see signs of the Zodiac ascribed to each of the months and to each of the tribes.

Of the 23,144 verses in the Bible, 866 refer to the heavens, sun, moon, stars, constellations, hosts of heaven and planets. And most of these verses refer to them as being directly involved in manifesting the will of Gd. But believing in astrology doesn’t mean you believe the stars direct one’s life, rather that one’s life may be reflected in the stars.

What does it really mean when we wish someone mazal tov? It doesn’t really mean “good luck” as commonly understood. Mazal means a constellation of the stars and tov means good. So the literal translation of mazal tov is: “May you be under (for this event) a good constellation of the stars.”

We need look no further than this morning’s Torah portion, which tells of the lives of the 1st 2 Jews—Abraham and Sarah—to see the importance that Judaism places on our astrology. Recently I was talking to someone about astrology and he pointed out to me that even though he and I were born in the same month, we were born under different signs. He insisted he was born under the Coca Cola sign on Peachtree Road! Not me! And not Abraham and Sarah!

Before their names were changed, Gd tells Avram and Sarai: “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great.” But as the years pass, Avram cries out to Gd again and again that he’s childless with no one to carry on his name and faith. Then the Torah (Gen. 15:5) tells us: And Gd brought Avram outside and said, “Look now toward the heavens and count the stars, if you’re able to count them, so shall be you seed.” On a simple level, Gd is telling him, “Don’t worry, you’ll have as many children as there are stars in the sky.”

But the rabbis saw this on an astrological level as well. Rashi brings us the Midrash, which tell us that Gd said to Avram: Get out of the astrological fate that you read in the stars—that you will not produce a son. Avram will not have a son, but Abraham will have one. Sarai will not give birth, but Sarah will. Do you see what’s going on here? Gd says to Avram, “Yes, you have read your horoscope correctly. As Avram and Sarai, your horoscope is true! You will remain childless! But because of your faith in me, you have earned a name change. I am changing your name from Avram to Abraham, and from Sarai to Sarah. Now go outside and look at the stars and you’ll see a new horoscope that Abraham and Sarah will have a child!” 

You should know that from this Midrash an interesting custom developed. When a person is gravely ill, we come to the synagogue to change his name to something like Raphael, which means, “Gd heals.” Or we add a name like that to the already existing Hebrew name of that person. Some people understand this custom in a rather childish manner, thinking that with a new name…if the Angel of Death comes knocking on their door looking for Chaim Schwartz, he will leave thinking he made a mistake because this place is now occupied by Raphael Schwartz. If only it were that easy to fool the Angel of Death! But this Midrash teaches that it is possible that the giving of a new name can change one’s destiny—what’s written in the stars for someone—if you lives up to his/her new name.

In the Talmud (Shabbat 156a), Rabbi Joshua ben Levi posted a horoscope for the days of the week: The Sunday child will be distinguished; Monday’s is wrathful and enjoys the sight of blood; Tuesday’s is wealthy and sensual (I’m a Tuesday. I got the sensual part, but I’m still waiting for the wealthy part!); Wednesday’s is intelligent and enlightened; Thursday’s is benevolent; Friday’s is pious; and those born on Saturday tend to die on Saturday.

Listening to all this, you can’t simply dismiss people who read their horoscope or astrological charts. I have a close friend who is a bit of a spiritual master who if very adept at creating astrological charts with the help of his computer. Just give him the date and time you were born, and he will tell you all about your life. I have found him to be amazingly accurate. But the mistake of reading these charts or horoscopes is in allowing them to control your life—that you’ll make life decisions based on what they tell you.

From a Jewish perspective it must be understood that even those who believe that what happens is written in the stars, we must certainly believe that Gd gave us the power to overcome it! Because if the stars rule, then what of free will? If the stars control all, then how can Gd hold us accountable for our actions? As Edmund in King Lear puts it, “Blame it on the stars…We were villains of necessity, fueled by heavenly compulsion.” 

No,   Judaism doesn’t let us off the hook so easily! Judaism holds us responsible for our actions, for it is not the stars, but each and every one of us that ultimately decides our destiny. The stars may pre-dispose, but they cannot impose. Sunday’s child may be distinguished but it is up to each child born on a Sunday to decide whether they will be distinguished for good or for bad. Monday’s child might have a propensity for the sight of blood, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be a murderer! They might become a butcher or even a surgeon!  

That’s what the Unetaneh Tokef prayer on the High Holy Days is about. Gd may decide “who shall live and who shall die” in that coming year, “but repentance, prayer and charity can avert the final decree.” This means that even if the stars decree the destiny of a bad year for us, we have the power, by our actions, to overcome it. 

Many of us fall into this trap of thinking life is beyond our control. I hear it all the time: “I have no mazel with my children,” or “I didn’t have the mazel to be born thin or rich or brilliant.” Don’t let that happen to you! In the Talmud (Shabbat 156a) Rabbi Yochanan teaches: Eyn mazel l’Yisrael—the Jew need not be subject to the signs of the Zodiac. The influence of the stars meets their match in our piety. It’s not what is predicted in our daily horoscope…but rather what are the deeds recorded in our Book of Life that control our destiny.

My friends, may we come to appreciate the words of Psalm 115 that we recited on Sukkot in the Hallel service of praise to Gd: Hashamayim shamayim laHashem…v’haaretz natan livney adam (the heavens, the heavens are for Gd…but what happens here on earth is given to the children of mankind). Amen!

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