(Almost) Eclipsing the Eclipse

As the wine steward said to Pharaoh in Genesis 41:9, “I declare my sins now.” The sin I declare now is my tone-deafness to the significance of this week’s solar eclipse.  I just didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to so many people, including to many of the Rabbinic Fellows in Clal’s LEAP program, run in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania’s Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.

In anticipation of our 3-day gathering in NYC, a number of our Fellows asked if/how we were making time and space to experience and reflect on the eclipse. My immediate and initial, and happily internal-only, response was that we were not planning to do so. I appreciated that many people were making a big deal of this event, and even have close friends who were traveling with their families from NYC to Canada or Maine in order to experience the 100% eclipse of the sun, as opposed to the 88% eclipse that could be glimpsed at home, but “interrupt” a gather of Katz Center scholars from around the world and a group of rabbis from across the county, for the eclipse?  I just couldn’t see it.  And then, I realized that I needed a new set of lenses. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

I not only began to ask myself what our Fellows were seeing in this event that I was missing. And yeah, cultivating curiosity about others’ views, especially when they depart from our own, is part of the methodology that animates the program, but this was something more. I wanted not only to build in space to honor their request but also to think about what made this event so compelling to so many people — especially to those who do not typically interpret signs in the heavens.

There are, of course, as many reasons for being engaged by the eclipse as there are people who are engaged. There is the relative rarity of the event. There is the way that natural phenomena evoke our sense of wonder, even when we can explain how and why they occur. There is the sense, for some, that such events connect us to God more intimately. But I also asked myself if something additional was not at work here — something “less elevated” than God, wonder, and the heavens.

How often do we — the wider we that transcends religion, race, nationality, political viewpoint — get to share something positive these days? And since few people I know actually worry about the eclipse being some kind of dark portent for the world — even those rooted in traditions which assert such things (see the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah 29a, for a Jewish version of that view) — the eclipse is that increasingly rare opportunity to make the most of something positive that transcends the divisiveness of daily life. Now that is something I understood!

To be clear, we would have rearranged our program and offered those who wanted to do so the chance to witness the eclipse, even without my coming to that conclusion. We would have done so because when those you respect share their desires, it pays to bend toward honoring them, if at all possible. But now, rather than seeing that as a “worthy interruption” in our program — itself an important category to live into — I saw it as a moment to celebrate a good omen, and one on which the blessing I made was occasioned by the eclipse, but made mostly on our capacity to come together over good things, at least as much over bad ones.

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