The Eclipse Isn’t Just a Natural Process — It’s a Historical Event

Our family isn’t great about planning things in advance. There have been years when, say, Pesach would be coming in about a week, and we realized we hadn’t ordered all the food we’d need for the seders, leading to a few rather frantic trips to the kosher supermarket.

So while we had been hearing about the upcoming eclipse, we had sort of figured that a 90% partial eclipse (the path along which we live) would be a decent enough experience, and didn’t spend a whole lot of time mapping out a plan – we’d go outside, say, “Cool!” a few times like we did for the 2017 eclipse, and then go back inside.

But then we heard that a partial eclipse wouldn’t be anything like totality. Having no real point of comparison, I sent a note to my friend Dr. Ethan Siegel, an astrophysicist who writes for Big Think, and asked whether investing all the time, energy, and hassle for getting to see the totality would be worth it. He gave an answer that made us book a hotel right that moment: “As someone who has seen partial, annular, and total eclipses, I have to say that a 90% partial eclipse is about a 5 out of 10; an annular eclipse is about a 9 out of 10; and a total eclipse is about a 1,000,000 out of 10.” So, while we’re definitely a bit nervous about cloud cover, running out of snacks, and bumper-to-bumper traffic, we’ve now got a plan for Monday, April 8, 2024.

Experiencing a total eclipse is truly about being in the right place at the right time. Depending on when and where the totality would be, it’s as close to a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience as you can get. If we wanted to wait until New York City has a total eclipse, for example, my kids will be in their mid-60s, and if I’m still alive, I’d be 101. Before that, it was 99 years ago, when my grandparents were kids. And before that? 1478, when only the Lenape saw it.

Though solar eclipses were traditionally seen as bad omens in Jewish tradition, it was also because, for most people, eclipses felt unpredictable. Though much of the natural cycle happens daily, monthly, or yearly – which allowed our ancestors to find shelter at night, see the moon wax and wane, or know when berries and trees would blossom – a solar eclipse would be remembered precisely because they were so rare, so specific to a time and place, and most of all, so scary when night would seem to fall in the middle of the day. Indeed, the link of time and place is a reason why solar eclipses have become not only scientific markers but historical ones as well. Written records in Mesopotamia, China, medieval England, and even a petroglyph in Ireland have even helped peg some events in ancient history to potential dates. Eclipses are not just personal experiences; they are generational records that last for millennia. 

So, while eclipses are, at their core, regular and predictable for our human lifespan, they can be so much more than that. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his book God in Search of Man, draws a distinction between a “process” and an “event.” Much of life, especially in the natural world, is process – it’s regular, predictable, and mostly uneventful. Yes, processes are important, and yes, they lead to the defining of the Jewish calendar and celebration of holidays, but they aren’t impactful like, say, the splitting of the Red Sea, the revelation at Sinai, or the destruction of the Temples. So while an eclipse is certainly a process in its most technical sense, for those who will see totality, it will be an event. As Heschel explains:

A process has no future. It becomes obsolete and is always replaced by its own effects. We do not ponder about last year’s snow. An event, on the other hand, retains its significance even after it has passed; it remains a lasting motive because and regardless of its effects. Great events, just as great works of art, are significant in themselves. Our interest in them endures long after they are gone.

It is, indeed, one of the peculiar features of human existence that the past does not altogether vanish, that some events of hoary antiquity may hold us in their spell to this very day…There are events which never become past. Sacred history may be described as an attempt to overcome the dividing line of past and present, as an attempt to see the past in the present tense. (pp. 211-212, italics in original)

I can’t wait to share this experience with my kids—not just because it will be an amazing sight, which I’m sure it will be. No, I want them to remember this experience to tell their grandkids about in the year 2079. 

My hope is that it will be a story told lador vador, from one generation to the next for my children and their children and their children. For all of us, it will be both a deeply personal experience that words can’t capture and a story they will share with others across North America and for generations to come. Most importantly, I can’t wait to experience the incredible majesty and awe of not just “Let there be light,” but truly surprising “Let there be dark.”

 

Photo Credit:
Detailed view of a solar eclipse corona
Image credit and copyright:
Phil Hart

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