Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Sun Disappeared, the Moon Laughed, and I Discovered the Universe

I began to worry that we would miss it. Heading south from West Yellowstone with the whole family in tow, traffic was at a standstill. A mass exodus to the path of totality extended as far as the eye could see along the single lane of Route 20. Following the lead of several gutsy drivers, I turn the rented SUV onto a dirt road between the fields… 

Our destination was Rexburg, an innocent Western town with pretty parks, flapping flags and friendly folks. Eventually the traffic cleared and I got back on the highway. We made it to Rexburg in time to find a parking spot and join a crowd gathering in a large field to view the eclipse.

Reality eclipsed the hype.

Witnessing a total solar eclipse is incomparable to any other experience on earth. Those who missed it stare at the pictures in bewilderment, wondering what all the fuss was about. But a camera cannot capture the thrill and the terror of being in the shadow. You really did have to be there.

It’s not only photography that fails, language also has its limits. We have no words to describe intangibles like love, prayer, silence, or the color green. An eclipse, however, presents an even greater challenge. Writing about totality is like trying to explain infinity to a child. It is not just a want for words; the human mind is simply not wired for it.


I was unprepared. One moment there was a sun above my head, and the next, it was gone. I had underestimated the power of our star. Apparently, even the tiniest sliver of crescent sun is still a sun. And so, when the moment of totality arrived, it came as a shock.

We are unaccustomed to swift changes in the firmament. It takes an entire month for the moon to move through its phases. Prior to totality, the sun shrank too slowly for the eye to perceive movement. The daily sunrise and sunset are gradual and romantic, but there was nothing romantic about totality. The sun morphed before our eyes from a source of light into a source of darkness and we immediately felt the impact. Suddenly, the world went dark. Suddenly, a cold wind blew. Suddenly, stars appeared. Suddenly, we were screaming.

The great clockwork of heaven froze
. My time-conscious son Meir did not believe me when I told him afterwards that totality exceeded two minutes. He insisted it was no more than a few seconds.

I sense a
commotion around me, but the sound is off and the color is gone. A silent film playing in slow-motion. Everything is strange, foreign. The sky, the earth, people. Even the darkness is unfamiliar. It is not the darkness of night; it is the cold of outer space. Taking off my eclipse glasses, I look up and stare at the impossible.

It is magical and magnificent and splendorous and terrible. A globe of nothingness emanating rays of pure, ethereal light. The royal white mane of an invisible celestial lion.

I hear voices.

"Doesn't it look great on me?" The moon laughs, admiring herself in the mirror. "It's the sun's crown!" Her back is turned and she laughs again. I worry about her sanity.
A scientist, unsure of himself, makes a feeble attempt at reason. “That is not a crown. It is just the corona, the superheated gases of the solar atmosphere...”
"Gases, shmases! Are you blind? You don't see my crown? It is mine now. Mine! God knows, kings do not share crowns."
A simpleton speaks. "That crown is a curious thing. Dangerous, I say. When the sun wears it, it is invisible, and when moon wears it, she is invisible."
A prophet raises his voice. "What you see now in the heavens foreshadows the future redemption, when the light of the moon will once again be as bright as the sun, the way she was first created in Genesis.”
The moon is furious. "Silence!" she screams. "The future is today! I am King!" 
An old gentile woman whispers, "It is an evil omen. The end is near." A young boy starts to cry. 

I heed them no attention. Maybe some other time I'll ponder the meaning of it all, but right now that thing in the sky has me in a trance. It is so strange, so alien...

Peering out through the portal of the spaceship, I fix my gaze on the menacing, growing black hole at the center of the galaxy. The seatbelt light goes on as the pilot engages the hyperdrive and we head straight for the wormhole. Accelerating to light-speed…

I have always fantasized about space travel and here I am. I settle in to enjoy the trip, but then lurch back into reality. There is no spaceship. I am in Evergreen Park, in Rexburg, Idaho. I am on Planet Earth.

At long last, the fool on the hill sees the world spinning round. Totality is an ice bucket; an epiphany. We stand on a rock, speeding through the cosmos, dancing among celestial spheres.

We are always in outer space!

Excitement turns to panic. It cannot be. It just cannot be. Humans cannot survive in space. We can’t be here! We don’t belong here.

But then, where do we belong?

Totality strains consciousness to the brink of madness. Life is a miracle and we are so very, very vulnerable.


What is happening to me? Why am I reacting this way? There is nothing extraordinary about an eclipse. It is a simple alignment of the earth, moon and sun. A predictable phenomenon, solar eclipses occur somewhere on earth every eighteen months. Everybody knows the earth orbits the sun and everybody knows the moon orbits the earth. If darkness is so inspiring, the sun sets every night, for heaven’s sake. 

I suppose we could also ask why the Jewish People were shocked when God declared at Mount Sinai, “I am Hashem!” The Jews knew that already; they witnessed the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea. Everyone knew there was a Creator in heaven who cared for them, but when He pulled back the curtain and said hello, they fainted.

Totality is an “I am God” moment.

It was a magnificent spectacle – and it was also mundane. Trivial, actually. We don't even bother to recite a beracha on it. Our astonishment was entirely due to the fact that eclipses are rare. If eclipses were common we would pay them as much attention as a passing cloud. Nonetheless, I felt, we all felt, that we had witnessed a supernatural event. To quote my wife, the end of totality, seeing the sun burst forth from behind the moon, was like being present at the moment of creation. Let there be light!

photo by Dr. John Polansky

Despite our awareness that eclipses are ordinary, the experience shattered our complacency.

Why, you ask? Nature is nature. Nothing shocking about it. I share your question, but the problem of our irrational reaction is eclipsed by a second and far more important question. Why have we never noticed the universe before? You understand of course that this second question answers the first. After totality, the whole world looks different. Nature isn't natural anymore. "In His goodness, He renews the acts of creation every single day!" The triviality of the eclipsed sun is what makes it such a bright revelation of the Creator.

In retrospect, the eclipse was a silent pre-Elul Shofar blast. Out in Idaho, God yelled at humanity.

“Wake up and stop taking life for granted!”


  1. An accomplished Talmudist, inspiring teacher, and naturalist poet/essayist, to boot! Many thanks, R' Gordon, for the fine instruction on how better to appreciate the daily "mundane" miracles from Hashem. Your piece amply demonstrates, too, that we should not take for granted the unending gifts of the staff and avreichim of Merkaz Hatorah Community Kollel.

  2. How dare I post a stupid comment after such a beautifully crafted expression of appreciation? Ditto.

  3. Seriously now, that was the most inspiring article I've seen post-eclipse. Makes me realize that I should have picked up my family and chased after totality, rather than sitting in my backyard with them, getting a partial view of a partial eclipse. Next time, I hope I'll be able to pick up and me go, if I can still remember reading this article... Reminds me of my late father's favorite piece of advice: "It's the things we don't do in life that we most regret." Thanks for the reminder Rabbi!

  4. exquisite piece of writing... your descriptive play by play with lyrics from the beatles thrown in from left field out of the blue from the keyboard of a talmud chacham was captivating and charming to say the least... spellbinding actually as i momentarily felt what you experienced... im not inclined to chase after rainbows very often for the proverbial pot of gold mythically said to lie underneath them however your account of your quest reminds me of the sense of adventure that all good mysterious enigmas excite in man to search for and pursue the discovery of the truth... it's all about the journey while the achieving of the pay off or the unearthing of the gift at the end... the moment of finality of digging up the buried treasure whether of gold or of knowledge is merely the crowning cherry on top that makes all the striving and yearning appear meaningful and worthwhile but the hunt or the chase is really what it's always been about for inquisitive souls discontented with the humdrum status quo of things in life... well done... moshe parry

  5. It's so hard to describe totality to one who was not there. This is the best description I've read. Thank you, and thank you for visiting our city.