We are soon heading for a total eclipse of the sun. Nearly two millennia ago, the Sages of the Talmud stated that solar eclipses indicate a period of Divine retribution for various sins:
“At the time when the sun is eclipsed, it is an unfavorable period for the world. A parable: To what can this be compared? To a human king who made a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant: Take away the lantern from before them, and place them in darkness!” (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 29a; see too here)
In this parable, the king represents God, the King of Kings; the people at the table are mankind; the lantern is the sun. The moon obscuring the sun is the king’s servant who takes away the lantern. The eclipse of the sun thus represents a time of Divine displeasure.
However, the classical rabbinic authorities notes that an eclipse does not mean that the sun has been extinguished. The servant did not extinguish the lantern; he merely prevented it from illuminating the king’s subjects. The sun shines as merrily as ever during an eclipse, even if we cannot perceive its light.
Many eras in history have been dark for mankind. But during these times we should remember that God’s light has not been extinguished; it is merely in a state of concealment. Just as the sunlight always emerges from its eclipse, so too are all situations of God’s concealment only temporary, destined to be followed by the light of His redemption.
Furthermore, even during the darkness of a solar eclipse, all is not entirely in gloom. By an odd quirk of fate, the sun is four hundred times further away from us than the moon, but it is also four hundred times larger than the moon. This means that the moon precisely covers the sun. The result of this is that while the sun is essentially obscured, shafts of sunlight may appear around the edge of the moon as they shine through the mountains on its surface (these can damage the retina, and it is therefore dangerous to look at a solar eclipse with anything less than a welder’s mask). We can also perceive the glimmer of burning gases in the sun’s outer atmosphere. Admittedly, the light presented by these sources is minimal, but it is certainly detectable.
The Rabbis saw this as reflecting a lesson that we can derive from the incident when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. When this happened, the Torah tells us that “…They lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmaelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing gum, balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt” (Genesis 37:25). We are told that God arranged matters such that the merchants would be carrying sweet-smelling spices instead of their usual foul cargo. Now, this would appear to be of little comfort to Joseph. He had just been betrayed by his brothers and sold to Ishmaelites as a slave. What was the consolation in his prison quarters having a pleasant smell?
The answer is that precisely because this was the lowest point of Joseph’s life, God wanted to show that He was still with him. He did not want Joseph to fall into despair, so He sent him a small sign to reassure him. This minor but significant gesture strengthened Joseph’s spirits during his long ordeal.
Such is the message of the faint rays of light that can be seen during a solar eclipse. They are literally “rays of hope,” and they remind us that even during the dark periods of life, we are to look for those small signs which tell us that God is still with us.