Robert Lichtman

The Eclipse. A Final Word.

James Webb Space Telescope

I was minding my own business in the mid-1990s when I got a call from my 14-year-old daughter. “Abba, a car is coming to pick me up at school to meet the president.” “What president?” I asked. “President Clinton!” She explained why and I said, “There is a bracha (blessing) to say when you meet the President of the United States.” We reviewed the bracha, and she left for her meeting.

In the days leading up to the recent solar eclipse there had been conjecture about what bracha should be recited upon observing such a marvelous sight. Most of the rabbis offering their opinions began by summarizing the history of the Jewish community’s experiences with eclipses of all kinds, and then came to the same unusual conclusion.  As opposed to other encounters with natural phenomena, such as thunder, lightning, earthquakes, viewing beautiful trees or beautiful people, all of which have their own brachot to connect our experience with the Divine source of these wonderous encounters, a consensus rabbinic view emerged that upon witnessing an eclipse, which historically seemed to be associated with calamitous events or ominous omens, no bracha should be uttered.

This did not sit well with me.  I recalled an exchange with Rabbi Alvin Marcus, of blessed memory, when I had narrowly escaped a potentially serious accident. I asked him whether I should recite the traditional bracha to thank God for sparing me from harm. He asked me, “What did you say at the time?”  I answered him that I said “Thank God!” He said, “OK, you’ve already said the bracha.”

And so, I took it upon myself to view the absence of a formulaic bracha for an eclipse not to be a prohibition against saying one, but rather as permission to use my own imagination and experience to connect with the Sovereign of the Universe.  If I have the presence of mind at the time of the eclipse, I decided, I will draw upon my feelings and share my thoughts with God in my own words.

Then some other rabbinic opinions appeared, observing that eclipses cannot be understood as omens, nor can they be interpreted as responses to any earthly activity because they are predictable to the fraction of a second, centuries in advance of their occurrences. Anything that is foreseeable with such certainty cannot be viewed as a reaction to human action or be a portent of any worldly events. Eclipses are indeed bracha-worthy, they concluded, and suggested that the bracha to be recited is “Blessed are You … who performs acts of Creation.”

And so, while I watched the moon gradually overwhelm the sun, I thought about what I might say to God about the spectacular event I was privileged to witness. When the eclipse reached totality and the sun’s corona erupted into view, my eyes teared and my lips trembled and the only words that came out of my mouth were “Oh my God. Wow!” Not only once. After a while I did say the Creation blessing, but to be honest, it totally failed to capture anything that I was feeling or wanted to express to God at that moment.

After my daughter returned from meeting President Clinton, I asked her what he said. “I don’t remember; I was too excited!” I asked her if she recited the bracha. “I couldn’t remember it; I was too excited!”

I know what it’s like to be too excited. I know what it’s like to feel simultaneously infinitesimal and majestic. I understand and I am trying to imprint upon my brain a new comprehension of the word “awesome.” And I recognize as a creature endowed with the Divine gift of speech that sometimes the most appropriate application of that power is to say nothing at all.

Or just, “Wow!”

About the Author
Robert Lichtman lives in West Orange, NJ and draws upon his long tenure of professional leadership to teach and write about strategic issues and opportunities impacting the Jewish community, and other things. He writes his own bio in the third person.
Related Topics
Related Posts