Readers who live in or are visiting Lincoln Beach, Oregon, will get the first glimpse. That’s where the solar eclipse, whose totality-path crosses a broad swath of the United States, begins on this continent, at 9:05 a.m. on Monday morning. Most readers, however, live in parts of the country that will experience only a partial eclipse, and later in the morning or afternoon.
A total solar eclipse has an astounding effect on those who witness it. The day turns quickly dark, animals and birds fall silent, the temperature drops precipitously. At the moment of totality — the only time when looking at the sun during an eclipse is safe (and it isn’t ever safe for those of us in the partial-eclipse path) — the luminary of the day is obscured by the moon, with only the solar corona, the sun’s usually impossible to see halo, visible just beyond the edges of the lunar obstruction.
The experience of a total eclipse of the sun has inspired poets and essayists to express their utter amazement at the seeming change of nature itself. The event, they relate, seems like a miracle.
And, of course, it is. Not because it is unnatural, but, on the contrary, because it is natural. That is to say, what we call “nature” is itself a miracle, a result of Hashem’s will.
As the Chovos Halevavos explains (Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, 3:23), we are to learn from “all that exists in the universe, from the smallest creations to the largest, and the superior qualities human beings have in the world, and the levels of the creations below and above, and the arrangement of the heavenly spheres, the movement of the sun, the moon, the stars…” And we are “not [to] be deceived because of our seeing them so frequently, and becoming used to them for so long, that [we] abandon being in wonder of them, and abandon contemplating them…”
He continues, describing how many simple people “are in wonder when seeing something they are not used to seeing, like a solar or lunar eclipse, thunder and lightning, comets, earthquakes, hurricanes or other similar phenomena” but take as a matter of course the miracles before us constantly.
We simply use the former word “nature” for the miracles to which we are accustomed, he explains, and the latter one for those we have not before experienced. All there is, in the end, is Hashem’s will.
In Michtav MeEliyahu, Rav Dessler asks us to ponder a world where the dead routinely rise from their graves, but no grain or vegetation has ever grown.
Rav Dessler’s thought experiment continues with the sudden appearance of a man who procures a seed, something never seen before in this bizarre world, and plants it in the ground. The inhabitants regard the act as no different from burying a stone, and are flabbergasted when, several days later, a sprout pierces the soil where the seed had been consigned, and eventually develops into a full-fledged plant, bearing — most astonishing of all — seeds of its own! Techiyas hameisim didn’t register on their wonder-scale; a seed’s sprouting did. Both, though, are “miracles” — Hashem’s will. May we merit the yet-unwitnessed one soon.
The truth that nature is in fact miraculous has relatively recently become recognized even by honest men of science. The famed physicist Paul Davies — yesh chochmah bagoyim — put it succinctly: “The very notion of physical law is a theological one.”
Physicist Eugene Wigner, similarly, confessed that the underpinning of nature “is something bordering on the mysterious and there is no rational explanation for it.”
Chazal taught us as much in the famous account in the Gemara (Taanis, 25a), in which the daughter of Rabi Chanina ben Dosa realized shortly before Shabbos that she had accidentally poured vinegar instead of oil into the Shabbos lamps, and began to panic. Rav Chanina, understanding most keenly that Hashem’s hand is no less in the seemingly mundane than it is in the seemingly miraculous, and thus particularly merited what most people would call miracles, reassured her. “The One Who commanded oil to burn,” he said, “can command vinegar [as well] to burn.” And so it did.
On the heels of the eclipse comes Rosh Chodesh Elul. It leads us to a wondrous effect of Hashem’s will we call the Yamim Nora’im, when a miracle called teshuvah can be effected by the other will He has made room for in the universe: our own.
May we merit, as we enter the month before Rosh Hashanah, to become miracle workers ourselves.