Ari Z. Zivotofsky

Musing from totality – a solar eclipse sheds light on life

Observing two massive heavenly bodies align overhead on a clear, crisp spring day inspires an array of thoughts and take-home messages. My wife and I were fortunate to observe the complete solar eclipse that occurred on Monday, April 8, erev rosh chodesh Nisan 5784 in Cleveland, OH. We were not the only “out-of-towners” to descend upon Cleveland and benefit from the Cleveland hospitality and community infrastructure for this event. We ran into other non-Clevelanders, some of whom we knew before, and some with whom we bonded over this shared experience, before, during, and after the great eclipse.

Removing the special glasses when totality commences really is a jaw-dropping experience. Awesome. Amazing. One then stares for the 3+ minutes of totality at this wonder of nature, not wanting to miss a second of it, and thoughts start to percolate through one’s mind. Three of the lessons that we took from the event related to the importance of preparation, the significance of total commitment, and how observing this natural phenomenon can shed light on Biblical verses.

Passing through the NY/NJ/PA area on the way to Cleveland, we discovered that weeks before the big day, schools and public libraries were distributing special eclipse glasses for the scheduled partial solar eclipse to occur in that area. In Cleveland, we saw eclipse glasses with a range of logos, including the local Jewish day schools, and one with the name of a couple who got married the night prior to the eclipse (a momento from the wedding!). Everyone was making sure they were equipped. Signs in the gas stations along the Pennsylvania highway declared “NO eclipse glasses”. Electronic highway billboards advised turning on headlights for the upcoming minutes of darkness. There were endless newspaper articles, lectures, and discussions. Schools were let out early in many cities, banks and most offices were closed.

Downtown Cleveland prepared for a festival, with roads cordoned off, music, eclipse t-shirts for sale, and special events at the Science Museum. Groups assembled in local parks, yards, and parking lots to share the experience. Going up and down the streets, families and neighbors were gathered on front lawns, many in reclining chairs, all wearing the special glasses. And how long did this experience last? Well, the leadup from the first contact between the moon and the sun to totality took about an hour as the moon slowly crept over the sun and covered it little by little. Totality lasted a mere three-plus minutes! And then the moon slid away from the sun, gradually exposing it again. So much preparation for three minutes? Well, first of all, it was important to prepare. Without proper glasses, if one gazed directly at the sun there could be serious damage to the eyes. And without the educational prep, people would not have really appreciated this rare event.

A message we came away with is that when there is something of significance, even if it itself is relatively brief, preparation is also part of the event and can greatly enhance the experience. If we value something, we put time and effort into preparing. For example, the Passover. While the seder lasts longer than the eclipse, it is still only a mere few hours. Serious preparation can make the seder more meaningful. A wedding is a few hours, but the preparation of many weeks helps make it special. And that is true for any important event. And although the preparation is aimed at the event itself, the preparation itself also has value. For example, from the eclipse preparation everyone learned some astronomy and something about the Jewish calendar, and in seder prep, we gain from the pre-seder learning.

Another reflection we came away with has to do with the concept of totality vs. near-totality. Cleveland had totality; the NYC area had 90%. No question that even 98% was interesting and awe-inspiring. But the experience of totality is different. Cleveland was blessed with beautiful blue skies and a bright sun for the event. As the moon began to cover the sun, it became darker and chillier out. With the special glasses we observed 50%, 90%. 99%. And then the magical moment when totality occurred and everyone shed their glasses to gawk at one of nature’s wonders. The transition to totality was not merely quantitative, it was qualitatively different. It was total- darkness. The birds stopped chirping (and began flying and chirping immediately when the sun began peeking out again), streetlights went on in some places, and it felt like nighttime. The sun was totally obstructed such that the glasses are no longer needed. Even at 99% the slim piece of sun can damage the retina and lights up the Earth. The difference between nearly and complete was immense. There are times when we need to put 100% into something- nearly is not the same as complete. Committing to be a spouse, parent, teacher, doctor, etc. with 100% commitment is far different that even 99%.

Observing how the moon so perfectly covered up the sun helped explain seemingly contradictory verses in the first chapter of Genesis. The sun and the moon are described in the Creation story as both the “greater light” and the “lesser light” and also as “the two great lights”. Clearly, from an objective G-d-centered perspective the sun is by far the greater light and the moon the lesser light. However, from an earth-based human perspective, because just by “coincidence” the moon’s diameter is about 400 times smaller while the sun is about 400 times further away, they are indeed in a sense the exact same size, as so elegantly demonstrated by their momentary alignment during the totality phase of the eclipse. Mah rabu ma’asecha – How many are Your works, Lord! In wisdom You made them all (Psalms 104:24)! How beautiful a world G-d has created, and as the Rambam taught, we can learn to appreciate G-d’s greatness by observing His remarkable handiwork.

About the Author
Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar Ilan University. Also trained as a rabbi and shochet, he has a masters degree in Jewish history. He has written extensively on topics of Jewish history, culture, and traditions, in particular in Mishpacha magazine and in his regular column (now running 20+ years) in the OU magazine Jewish Action.
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