A Jewish Renewal perspective on the tetrad of lunar eclipses.
We in North America are about to experience the second of four total lunar eclipses in a row which, incredibly, coincide with Pesach (15 April in 2014, 4 April in 2015) and Sukkot (8 October in 2014 and 28 September in 2015). The full moon marking these festival times will be eclipsed at the moments of perhaps the greatest joy in the Jewish calendar – at Sukkot, when we enter with thanksgiving into our fragile and impermanent harvest houses; and at Pesach, when we experience freedom from the Narrow Place — two years running.
Jewish mystics link the moon with Shekhinah, immanent and indwelling Presence of God manifest in creation. Many Hasidic teachings depict hester panim, the hiding or withdrawal of God’s presence from us. In every life, we experience alternating phases of God’s presence and God’s (apparent) absence — but just as the moon remains present even during its eclipse, so God’s presence remains even when S/He may seem veiled in shadow.
Beyond mere veiling, a lunar eclipse invites a shift in spiritual perspective. If we were on the moon looking at Earth during these eclipses, we would see the Earth silhouetted in the sun’s fire. Standing on the moon’s surface, we would look up at the Earth and witness sunrise and sunset happening simultaneously, everywhere, along the Earth’s shadowed rim. It is the red of the Earthly sunset that we Earthlings see projected onto the moon at the time of a total lunar eclipse.
Lunar eclipses thus invite us to lift grandly above habitual ways of seeing. Reb Zalman taught that once humanity could see the Earth as a swirled green-blue marble suspended in space, a paradigm shift occurred. A door opened for us to see ourselves as cells in the cosmic organism of our planet, without artificial borders and boundaries that appear to divide us. Lunar eclipses call us toward that global vantage. Lunar eclipses project onto the moon the timeless reality that sunrise and sunset – shifts of awareness between light and dark – are unfolding at every moment. Usually this truth of nature (and spiritual life) escapes our day-to-day awareness. A lunar eclipse, however, visibly projects this truth onto our cosmic symbol for Shekhinah, the indwelling divine presence. A lunar eclipse thus reminds us that with God is our power, and our calling, to lift our consciousness beyond the narrowness of place and boundary.
That lunar eclipses coincide with our biannual festivals for two consecutive years invites especially profound opportunities. At Sukkot, season of our joy and gratitude, we leave behind old calcified patterns and emerge into deep truths of impermanence. At the Sukkot eclipses, we can gaze at the fall harvest moon and see the ultimate natural image of global interconnectedness reflected on the face of Shekhinah. So too at Pesach. At Passover, season of our liberation, we leave behind the constrictions of slavery and limited insight. At the Passover eclipses, we can look up and see the ultimate natural image of liminality and change projected onto the springtime full moon.
At these festival times, traditional liturgy includes Hallel, songs of praise drawn from the Psalms. At the time of these festival lunar eclipses, how amazing to proclaim the Psalmist’s joyous words of unity and higher perspective:
רָם עַל-כָּל-גּוֹיִם ה׳ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ
מִי כַּה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַמַּגְבִּיהִי לָשָׁבֶת
הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ
God is high above all nations: God’s glory is above the heavens.
Who is like YHVH our God, enthroned on high,
Looking down low on heaven and earth?
– Ps. 113:4-6
These eclipses are ultimate expressions of natural liminality reflected onto our Jewish calendar. At Pesach we stop saying the prayer for rain and begin saying the prayer for dew; at the end of Sukkot, we switch back the other way. These festivals are liminal moments, as are sunrise and sunset. During these eclipses we’ll see liminality projected onto Shekhinah at the very moments that we ourselves are liminal, sanctifying transitions from one state of being into another.
And with four total lunar eclipses back to back, every six months, timed perfectly to our holiday calendar and seasonal shifts, we have four chances to experience this grandeur — one lunar eclipse for each of the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and spirit. One lunar eclipse for each of the four letters in the Shem HaMeforash, the unpronounceable Name we denote as YHVH. Four festival opportunities to deepen our amazement and wonder gazing into the night sky. Four festival moments of liberation and gratitude unlike any that we have known before.
Chag sameach / Happy Holidays.
This post, which first appeared in slightly different form before the first of the four eclipses, was written by rabbinic student David Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.