You may have heard that a solar eclipse will be at least in part visible on Monday afternoon across most of the continental United States. While total eclipses happen relatively often, the particular path across the country and the accessibility of so many places to watch has made this eclipse an even more anticipated moment. Anticipated and in some quarters a source of anxiety. Not the fear of the sky going dark that had been a terror in the pre-modern world, but the uncertainty around the dangers involved in looking directly at the sun during the eclipse. It is absolutely true that looking at the wrong time without proper eye protection can be extremely hazardous and I know people who have actually suffered long lasting damage from the experience. The warnings are serious. What is, however, not always accurately described is the reason for the danger. During an eclipse, rays of the sun are not different than any other time. And the position of the moon, whose shadow is actually the cause of the phenomenon does not magnify or transform the sun’s power. Any time one faces directly at the sun, the lenses in the eyes focus the heat of the sunlight on the retina and cause it to burn. The reason the eclipse presents such a dire risk is that when darkened by the moon the sun becomes easy to look at and the severe effects of the burning rays can take place unnoticed.
Even as the heavens present their spectacle, the Jewish calendar, also based on the sun and moon, enters a special phase. The new month of Elul, starting Monday evening, brings to an end the year 5777 and leads to the High Holiday Season. Like the sun during the eclipse, a person’s experience during Elul is understood to be different than the rest of the year. More intensely spiritual, more transformative in preparing to start the year with light and renewal. But maybe what is different during this time and the whole season of awe isn’t a more auspicious presence, of G*d or otherwise. But the ability to block out whatever makes it uncomfortable to look directly at who we are. A stripping away of distractions and expectations that the most important aspects of our lives are visible or routine and the appearance, like the shimmering corona, of a different kind of aura.
The only difference? No glasses needed. Just a willingness to look and see what is there. So look with care tomorrow, and then take it all in in the coming days.