Three Thoughts after Totality

While words and photos will never be able to capture the experience of totality, a few thoughts came to me after driving fourteen hours over two days with my family for this scientific and awe-inspiring pilgrimage.

Predictability and the Unforeseen

The solar eclipse itself was completely predictable from an astronomical perspective – there was even an article from an Ohio newspaper from 1970 letting people know that “the next showing [would be] in 2024.” And if airlines and hotels actually did book travel twenty years in advance, you could know right now that you should travel to Tulsa, Tampa, or Orlando on August 12, 2045 to be in the path of totality.

But of course, while you might be able to keep a promise to see an eclipse decades from now (as this teacher and his students did), you wouldn’t actually make travel plans right now because more immediate concerns might complicate things. For our family, the day before we were planning to leave, our son said he felt “chilled,” and a thermometer soon relayed that he had a 101-degree fever. On Sunday, he was feeling better, but we wondered, “Are we actually going to go? Is this really a good idea?” Luckily, the fever abated pretty quickly, but we still had concerns about traffic and cloud cover on Monday morning. At our hotel, we overheard one person changing his travel plans that Monday morning since the forecast was better a few miles north and east. When we stopped at a pizza place in our location of Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, another person told us he had originally been planning to go to Niagara Falls but, just on Sunday, had decided to come to where we were. And I heard stories of many people who had been planning to go to Dallas or Austin or Buffalo, and switched their plans due to the uncertainty about visibility.

In Avot 3:15, Rabbi Akiva says, “Everything is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted.” This is usually interpreted as an attempt to reconcile free will and determinism. But it’s also a reminder that even with everything planned out in advance, surprises happen. We need a balance of certainty and surprise, of determinism and choice, of structure and freedom. Too much in either direction and we are either stifled or immersed in chaos. The trick is to balance accepting what will be foreseen while maintaining the ability to pivot.

99% v. 100% – The Analog v. the Digital

I had never seen totality before. I remembered putting on eclipse glasses while waiting for my kids at Sesame Place in Pennsylvania in 2017, but it was cloudy. Even still, like for most people, the partial eclipse was an incredible sight (especially because it will be another twenty years until even a partial eclipse reaches the continental United States). But among those who saw it in 2017, the consensus (and my friend Ethan Siegel, an astrophysicist) was that even 99% of totality isn’t remotely close to seeing 100%. They were right.

As the build-up towards totality came closer and closer, we saw what almost everyone else saw during the partial eclipse – namely, staring through glasses every few minutes to check on the moon’s transit in front of the sun. But even at 99% coverage, the sun still shone through. Yes, it was a bit darker, and the shadows were turning circles into crescents. Yes, we were thinking, “This is really cool!” which everyone who saw a partial eclipse was feeling, as well. But then, as we watched the last glimmers of the sun’s rays get overtaken by the moon, we all gasped. 

“Midnight!” at 3:24 pm. The sun covered by a black circle. The corona. Glimpses of Venus and Jupiter. Screams of awe and jubilation from the lake nearby. I’m sure that for those who saw a partial eclipse, it was totally worthwhile. But that 1% was, quite literally, the difference between night and day. Up to the point of 99%, the partial eclipse was a matter of degrees — but totality was a difference in kind. That difference created a moment when we knew everything changed, like moving from a dimmer switch to a light switch, and one that millions of others were experiencing throughout the day.

I often think of ritual in a similar way, as a way we transform the analog (which is continuous) into the digital (which is discrete). After all, when does someone actually “become an adult?” When does a romantic relationship become “official”? How do we know when it’s actually “morning” or “evening”? These all are processes where it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment without a demarcation that we humans would define. That’s why Judaism has created rituals such as b’nei mitzvah, weddings, and candle-lighting times. They create a moment that allows us to say, “Now. This is it.”

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman talks about “ritual moments” and how they all incorporate build-up to a climax. From a baseball game (which starts with the introduction of the players, the national anthem, and finally the first pitch) to a political convention (with introductions, speeches, and finally the acceptance of the nomination) to Jewish rituals (such as at a wedding, where guests are welcomed, blessings are made over wine, and finally the individuals are joined together as a married couple), rituals help us structure what might be otherwise messy events. 

The build-up of totality was a ritual, as well. Partial eclipses are definitely cool, and if we happen to be in the path of a future one, we’ll grab glasses and look up. But most likely, it wouldn’t change the flow of how we’d go about our day, both beforehand and afterward. On Monday, though, for those three-and-a-half minutes of totality, it was a ritual moment. 

The Universal and the Particular

Even though I know when and where the next eclipse will be, I don’t think I’ll be traveling to see the totality again. It was a special moment, shared with family and friends through the invitation of my fifth-grade science teacher, who happened to live in Tupper Lake. We saw the majesty of the solar system, but we also experienced it on a deeply intimate and personal level.

Judaism, too, celebrates both the universal and the particular, and this eclipse reinforced their importance. On one level, millions of people shared the exact same experience – breathless wonder, hours on one-lane roads on the drive home, sharing of photos flooding social media. But on another level, each experience was unique to each person. They’ll have their story to share with their friends and family – and they’ll want to tell it, even if it’s the same as everyone else’s. 

Scientifically, the eclipse is simply astrodynamics, how celestial objects move around the sky. But as Pamela Paul wrote in the New York Times:

Some people say an eclipse brings on a sense of insignificance and solitude in the grand scheme of the universe. I had a slightly different reaction, more of a communal alignment with nature. For this atheist, it was the closest thing to a religious experience, a kind of monolith moment. Here we were, just a bunch of primates, seemingly so advanced in intelligence and power yet awed in the face of the profound.

I’m not sure if our family will be forever changed by seeing the totality. But our memories won’t be of just the awe-inspiring experience of the moon blocking the sun. It will be making small talk with other travelers at the Subway shop in Warrensburg, where they seemed shocked by the line out the door at 8:00 pm on a Monday. It will be my kids playing badminton with my teacher (from when I was their age) in the minutes leading up to the totality. It will be pulling into our driveway at 1:15 am, and much, much more. 

Most of all, it will be a story of the universe, told amongst our family and friends, passed from one generation to the next. 


*Photo Credit to Fleegle1834 on Reditt, Original Article by Victor Cohn for the Washington Post

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