I’ll Follow the Sun (with apologies to Lennon and McCartney)

Did you hear the one about the fellow who stayed up all night wondering where the sun went? It finally dawned on him.

The sun. It’s easy to take it for granted, even to resent it, living in Texas. But of course it’s a start point for everything on this planet that interests us. Without the sun constantly bombarding the surface of our planet with energy, life on earth would not have been able to defy the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics and evolve into the magnificent diversity we see and know today. Think of the things you don’t take for granted: trees? No sun, no trees. Kittens? No sun, no kittens. Hawaii? No sun, no Hawaii. No us.

Which brings me to a something Jewish. Jews bless the sun – the birkat-ha-Hammah. Many Jews are aware we have a blessing for the moon. It’s well known because it’s recited once a month. The blessing for the sun, by contrast, is off our radar screen because it’s only recited once every 28 years. That makes it a once, twice, or with excellent timing, a thrice in a lifetime event. It’s the Halley’s Comet of Jewish prayer.

Why once in 28 years? Because according to the rabbis, every 28 years the sun returns to the original position in the heavens it occupied at the moment God created it. This confluence of events, a restaging of the heavens as they were at the beginning of time, was not a moment to be overlooked in the rabbinic imagination. So, they bid us to celebrate this re-enactment of the creation of the sun. At the first rays of sunrise on that day, Jews are to go outside, face east and recite:

Blessed are You, Adonai, our God and God of all the universe, who makes all things in creation.

The next occurrence of this day is fast coming up – Wednesday morning, April 8, 2009. This celebration will mark the 206th time, according to the Jewish calendar, of the sun’s full return location at creation.

Which begs the question, why then? Well, according to the Talmud, the sun was created at the spring (Vernal) equinox. This year the equinox falls on March 21. Huh? So why the 8th of April? Funny thing. The Jewish calendar, which for 3000 years has based itself on the cycles of the moon while correcting for the solar year, has for those 3000 years been slightly off on the exact length of the solar year. Our original annual calculations were based on having 365.25 days. The true solar year, however, is closer to 365.242199. Not so far off, really, but over several millennia, those decimal points have added up into a variation of almost 18 days. That being the case, the traditional response has been to continue doing what we’ve been doing rather than correct it post facto. My movement, the Reform movement, actually arose in part over arguments about correcting the Jewish calendar on issues like this.

But regardless of whether one observes Birkat-ha-Hammah on March 21 or April 8, I love the lesson of this celebration: We should take nothing for granted. Judaism is all about cultivating an attitude of gratitude. It turns out the line from Fiddler on the Roof is absolutely true. When the student asks the rabbi, “Rabbi, is there even a blessing for Czar?”, the rabbi responds, “My son, there is a blessing for everything.”  And so it is – we Jews have a blessing for food, for bowel movements, for seeing something attractive, and for seeing something ugly, for when good things happen, also for when someone is born, but also when someone dies. And twice or three times in a lifetime, we turn our attention to this orb which gives us light, warmth, and energy. We cease to take it for granted and we thank God for this celestial power that has been bestowed upon us.

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