As darkness falls — magic rises

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solar eclipse

Solar eclipse glasses…a full section devoted to the eclipse in the Sunday New York Times…radio broadcasts explaining the phenomenon and advising about safety practices…cross-country voyages and vacation packages to experience the eclipse.  Excitement is building in anticipation of the first total solar eclipse in a century to be visible in the United States on August 21st.  Before we knew what they were and how to predict them solar eclipses used to inspire fear.  We now know that a total solar eclipse occurs twice a year somewhere on the globe – but it’s been nearly a century since the last one was visible from the continental United States.  That means that next Monday when the moon covers the sun in the sky that a whole new generation will experience a celestial wonder unlike anything else.

I’ve been reading up about solar eclipses and I’ve learned some amazing facts. The temperature will decrease by as much as 15 degrees. Apparently, many animals appear baffled when an eclipse occurs. People have reported restless deer, screeching scattering birds and bees retreating to their hives. By some accounts, people experience strange inexplicable sensations. The whole show will last about 2 hours, from the time the moon first begins to “cover” the sun until the sun is finally whole again.

There are eclipse chasers (much like storm chasers) that venture great distances and go to extreme lengths to witness the magical experience. As a matter of fact, some of my very close friends have embarked on a cross-country trek in their R.V. with their grandchildren to view the eclipse from the Grand Tetons, where the sun will be 100% eclipsed.

Light plays an important role in many religions. In the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, God’s first words are “let there be light.” According to the text, the sun, moon and stars are created on the fourth day.  Light (in Hebrew or) and the planets, the sun, moon and stars are frequently highlighted in Jewish prayer. The siddur (Jewish prayer book) exclaims “with mercy You give light to the world”– “You created the sun and sent forth its rays, reflecting Your splendor”– “the stars are radiant with Your light”– “God fashioned the moon and set its cycles”– “the galaxies of heaven sing praises to God.”

One of my favorite evening prayers praises God for arranging the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan. God is proclaimed Creator of day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light. Perhaps the writer witnessed an eclipse!

Because the wonders of nature resonate so deeply with me, I always look for opportunities to pronounce a special blessing to acknowledge a beautiful sunset, a shooting star, a rainbow, or even an eclipse. Here are two suggested blessings for the solar eclipse:

 Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam she-kocho u-g’vurato ma-lay olam. (Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe whose power and might fill the whole world). The second blessing is: Baruch attah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha-olam oseh ma’aseh v-raysheet. (Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Source of Creation)

 I hope that wherever you find yourself on August 21st, you will savor and sanctify this once-in-a-century event.

I recently had a chance encounter with a retired professor of theoretical physics. When I expressed my excitement about the eclipse he surprised me with his response.  He maintained that an eclipse is just an accident of nature with no particular meaning, and nothing to get too excited about. I fervently disagree.  For me, the eclipse and every other wonder of nature is a “wow” moment. I can’t wait to experience it and when that first sliver of light emerges from the darkness it will for me affirm that even the tiniest spark of light can transform darkness. I will be heartened by the awareness that millions of Americans as well as visitors from around the world will unite in experiencing this singular cosmic spectacle. Our common humanity will be evident.   May awareness of this shared phenomenon turn our hearts to one another and cause us to redouble our efforts to bring more light to the world.

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