A close friend of mine passed away suddenly, a few weeks before this year’s solar eclipse. For many people, this eclipse is the big event of the year, but for me, it was the eclipse of my friend. I don’t know what the eclipse means and I don’t know what my friend’s sudden death means. But I will not let either pass by without some attempt at asking why, not with focus on the past but with contemplation of higher purpose. As the sages say about the significance of attending a funeral: ‘V’haChai yiten et libo,’ ‘and the living should take to heart.’
Many rabbis ask why we do not say a blessing for an eclipse as we do for other natural phenomena that we encounter, like thunder and lightning, earthquakes, etc. One answer is that an eclipse has a negative connotation, and we do not say blessings or ‘Sh’hecheyanu’ for such things. For example, we do not say a blessing for new leather shoes, because they came from the death of an animal. What is the negative connotation of the eclipse? One aspect is that sunlight itself represents divine revelation. Therefore a cosmic event that blocks the sun, represents a concealment of revelation. The Kabbalistic term is ‘Tzimtzum,’ referring to hiding of holy light, thereby producing a darkened state. But is unusual darkness always bad, and is bright light always good? Not necessarily.
On a theological level, Tzimtzum is needed to protect us from too high a dose of light, even when the light is positive. When G-d warns the Israelites from approaching Mt. Sinai as Moshe did, G-d is conveying the principle that not everyone is ready to handle a surge of spiritual voltage. Recall too the story of the two sons of Aharon who tried to enter the Holy of Holies while unprepared to integrate the light and ‘bring it back home,’ i.e. to return to physical reality. Similarly, with an eclipse, we are constantly reminded not to stare directly at the eclipse. How do we look safely? By preparing and viewing through the right kind of glasses, or a ‘homemade box’ that will give us protection from the intensity of the light. What are the ‘Jewish glasses’ that give us this ability to experience the divine light without pulling the soul away from the body? It is the insulation provided by vessels and vestments of Torah and mitzvot! Some people think that the latter are meant to pull us away from this world. On the contrary, say our mystics, Torah and Mitzvot are meant to keep the soul and body in harmony IN this world.
On a personal level, in an eclipse, we know the sun is still there, as bright as ever. So too the death of a loved one does not mean that the person no longer exists. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe once put it, the soul has just moved to the second floor. The loved one has not terminated its reality, except in this physical world. Moreover, the soul continues to look upon us and care about us and even guide us when necessary. Therefore, not only is excessive grief detrimental to us, it can also hamper the soul ascent of the deceased.
A further perspective from the Rebbe about the light of Darkness: “Normally light is the presence of Divinity and darkness its absence. In Psalm 18 however, G-d takes darkness and incorporates it, bringing it into the realm of G-dliness. In our own experience, this finds expression when the dark depths of despair and spiritual introspection lead to heights of spiritual light. These epiphanies come not in opposition to the darkness, but because of it. This paradox is possible because there is a type of darkness made by G-d….as the verse says: G-d made darkness His concealment, and granted a measure of inner light and Divinity. Thus King Solomon declared in Kohelet: ‘I have seen the advantage of light FROM the darkness ‘- i.e. darkness itself can be a source of light. “
The sages ask: Why in Judaism does the night precede the day in the calendar? They reply, because darkness must be followed by light. In other words, unlike light, darkness is NOT an end in itself. What is the purpose of darkness? It is meant to become incorporated and transformed into light. So too, life experiences that we call ‘dark’ and may even induce despair, have an aim of bringing us to a higher place. This is the deeper meaning of, ‘And the living shall take to heart.’
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov explains that this is a reason why we close our eyes when we say ‘Shema.’ When we focus on the Oneness of G-d, we are shutting our eyes to the barriers to this Oneness where ultimately everything has a deeper meaning. He also relates this to the kissing of the Tzitzit and the blue thread called ‘Techeilet,’ which is also related to the word ‘Tachlit’ meaning purpose. We may not be able to comprehend why bad things happen, but our faith can connect us to the light in ways that are more profound than before the negative event.
I conclude with a few verses from Scripture: ‘When I sit in darkness, G-d is my light.’ Also, ‘And it will be toward evening, there will be light.’ May these verses come true and be manifest for us as individuals, and for Israel and humanity as a whole.