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Toward the end of his life, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, a prominent German rabbi and Jewish thinker in the 19th century, insisted on traveling by foot to see the Swiss Alps. When his students tried to stop him, Rabbi Hirsch responded, “When I come before the Almighty, I will have to answer many things. But what will I answer when God asks, ‘So, have you seen My Alps?’”

I have always loved this story. The informal conversation with God, an insatiable wanderlust, and the whimsically profound reminder that the awe and wonder of the natural world is an avenue to connect with God.

It was this very awe that rushed through my body seven years ago when my husband Jeremy and I, along with a handful of friends, experienced a total solar eclipse for the first time in an open field in Wyoming. Maybe it was the 360 degree sunset, or the experience of day becoming night and then back into day, or the mystical glow of the sun behind the moon. It brought to life the words we pray each morning, המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית—the Force that renews creation continuously all day every day; that each moment is a moment of new creation. The world around us is amazing.

And, it was the same wonder that made us pack up our car last Sunday and drive the 12 hour round trip to Vermont with our two small children to experience the total solar eclipse again. But this time was different. Not only were we in a different place, with some of the same friends and some new, seven years older, and with two young children but, this time, it was here, close to home. Along the east coast everyone, no matter where they were, could experience some part of this magical astronomical wonder. Excitement and anticipation permeated the air. Children walked on the streets pulling out their special glasses and pointing. Strangers shared telescopes, bubbles (to entertain patient yet eager children), and warm anticipatory smiles as the moon slowly covered the sun.

So many small details have to go right for the perfect alignment of these two great orbs to occur. Quite literally all of the stars have to align. A total solar eclipse like this can only happen on planet Earth due to the size of the sun and the moon and the distance between each from the Earth. The surreal moment of totality was not only an alignment of the sun and the moon, but also a reminder during a dark time in human history of the greatness of human possibility; the power of science and God; of awe and wonder—both explained and unexplained—all happening at once.

In an essay written before the 2017 eclipse, my teacher Rabbi Nechemia Polen asks if a solar eclipse is coincidence, or even chance, and answers:

“Perhaps, but I prefer the word ‘co-occurrence,’ emphasizing that these circumstances occur—not just happen, but happen in a way that humans take notice and find wondrous, brimming with transformative, regenerative resonance. The very fact that humans still notice and respond to splendor may itself be the greatest miracle, the most revelatory sign of transcendence, the loudest ‘rumor of angels.’ Science and religious myth can both open our eyes and our hearts to surprise, to non-conventional thinking, to deeper appreciation of the cosmos and our place in it—and to our responsibility for the ongoing health and flourishing of our planet, where we all are situated, where we can view this astonishing alignment of two great lights, revealing that which is normally concealed and concealing that which is typically manifest, beckoning us to reverence, humility, elation, and gratitude.”

In our fragmented and binary world, it is often the awe and wonder of nature that has the strength to beckon us to reverence, humility, elation, and gratitude. All of which have the ability to break down barriers of separation between different groups, between science and religion, between us and the natural world, and between humanity and the Divine. They awaken our sense of  interconnectedness, our oneness. We pray that this sense of unity comes from the shared experience of wonder at the natural world from a place of safety and security, like witnessing an eclipse or seeing the Alps. But we know all too well that this feeling of connectedness can also come in the aftermath of moments of natural disaster, like earthquakes, fires, and floods.

The natural world—its beauty and its wonders—opens our hearts and reminds us that we are a part of something much greater than ourselves, even if only for a fleeting moment that lasts around 2 minutes and 40 seconds. No wonder God is eager for us to go out and see Her Alps!


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rebecca Weintraub