The Stars and Planets

One of the greatest tragedies of contemporary civilization is that millions and millions of people in urban agglomerations and even in rural areas live out their lives in total unawareness of the glory and wonder of the sky.

Most people sleep through the sunrise. Sunset is hidden from them by the man-made urban landscape. For many, the light of the sun is simply an annoying glare best removed with the help of sunglasses, or better still by going inside a building.

The true glory of the night sky is hardly ever visible to city dwellers since its subtle lights are simply obscured by the ubiquitous glow of city lights and pollution, even when weather conditions are relatively clear..

But seeing the night-sky in a desert or some other remote, uninhabited area, no-one can fail to be staggered by the awesome majesty of the celestial canopy of stars and planets and the haunting beauty of the moon.... The wonder and mystery become ever deeper as one begins to recognize and make friends with the different stars and planets and to understand their nightly, monthly and yearly pathways.

Long before modern astronomy gave us a sense of the mind-boggling immensity of the universe and the sheer intensity of the energy involved in bodies like the sun, people instinctively understood that the heavenly bodies radiate power on a scale out of all proportion to anything mere human beings are capable of producing.

No matter how many billions of lights are turned on in a city at night, the effect is puny compared to the sun lighting up the day. All life on earth depends on the sun.

Despite the tremendous advances in science since the invention of the telescope, our knowledge about the sun and the rest of the universe is still very limited. In some ways we may know less than our ancestors thousands of years ago.

Many people today cannot identify the twelve constellations of the zodiac or the positions of the major planets. Many do not even know where to find the moon in the sky at different times of the month.

It is ironic that in the contemporary world, people's lives are more than ever dominated by radiations of light -- from TV and computer screens, traffic lights and the like. Flashing lights are one of the major media of communication and social control. With the advances in laser technology, people have begun to appreciate the immense power that can be wielded through the accurate focusing of light.

Yet people have no idea that the magnificent celestial lightshow means anything or does anything. Scientists continue to speak as if the millions and millions of stars lighting up the sky are all shining purely by chance, as if their radiations have no significance whatever. Most people assume they must be right.

But wise men in most other times and cultures have known better. As Rebbe Nachman related:

There was once a king who devised a plan to conquer the entire world without war. Since the world is divided into seven areas, it contains seven parts. There are also seven planets: each planet shines on one part of the world. Likewise there are seven metals, and one planet shines on each type of metal.

The king gathered together all seven types of metal. He also ordered that he be brought the golden portraits of the kings which hung in their palaces. Out of these he made a man. The head was made of gold, the body of silver and the other parts of the body of other metals. The man thus contained all seven types of metal. The king placed the figure on top of a high mountain, so that all seven planets would shine on it.

Whenever a person needed advice as to whether to engage in a venture or not, he would stand in front of the part of the body made of the metal corresponding to the part of the world from which he came. He would then meditate on his question. If it was something that he should do, that part of the statue's body would glow and shine. If not, that part of the body would remain dark. With this statue, the king conquered the entire world and amassed great wealth....

From "The Bull and the Ram", Rabbi Nachman's Stories, pp. 109ff.

Most ancient civilizations, including those in the time of Abraham, believed the planets and stars to be the ultimate powers of the universe and worshipped them accordingly. Many of the gods and goddesses of ancient cultures were associated with particular planets or constellations of stars, which were believed to rule over the days of the week and months of the year as well as over fertility, prosperity, power and other aspects of life. Traces of such beliefs can be seen, for example, in the English and French names of the days of the week, which are derived from the Germanic and Roman names of the planet gods thought to rule over them.

Rabbi Moshe be Maimon -- known as Rambam or Maimonides (1135-1204) -- explains how humanity lapsed into actual worship of the planets and stars in the generations after Adam:

It was in the days of Enosh, the grandson of Adam. The wise men of the time understood that the One God had created these stars and planets to control the workings of the world. They saw that He had placed them on high and given them such glory, for they are His officers and attending ministers.

Accordingly they thought it would be appropriate to praise and honor them, imagining that it must be God's will to show respect to beings He Himself had made so great, just as an earthly king wants people to show respect for his servants and officers. Having reached this conclusion, they started building temples to the stars and planets and brought them sacrifices and offerings. They praised and glorified them with words and prostrated before them in order -- as they imagined -- to fulfill the will of the Creator...

With the passage of time, there arose false prophets who claimed that God had commanded them to worship a particular planet or all of the different constellations, to bring them specific offerings and libations, to build them temples and to make statues of the "form" of the star or planet in order that the common people, women and children would be able to worship it. These prophets informed the people that a particular planet had a certain form dreamed up by the prophet himself. He would say that this form had been revealed to him in prophecy.

In this way people started making statues which were placed in temples or under trees and on mountain and hill-tops. People would gather there to worship. The priests used to tell the simple people that this statue had the power to benefit or harm people and that they should worship and revere it. The priests told people what to do and what not to do in order to elicit favor and succeed in their various enterprises. Other deceivers arose claiming that the planet or constellation or angel itself had spoken to them and told them how to serve it. Cults of various kinds began to spread throughout the entire world.

As time went on the entire world became totally unaware of God. Men, women and children knew only about the wood or stone statues and temples with which they had been brought up from childhood and which they had been taught to bow to, worship and swear by. Their wise men imagined there was no other God besides the stars and constellations on whose account these statues had been made. With the exception of a few individuals, such as Enoch, Noah, Shem and Ever, no one knew or recognized the Creator of all the worlds.

This was the way the world was until the birth of the pillar of the world: our father Abraham.

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry, 1:1-2




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