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Here comes the Blessing of the Sun

RELIGION NOTEBOOK

NEW YORK (JTA) — I have this internal iPod in my head that provides theme music for my life. Lately my theme song is “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles. Not only is it my theme song, but this year it is the theme song of the entire Jewish people.

Why?

On the 14th of Nissan (April 8), the morning before erev Pesach (as if we do not have enough to do that day), we will be reciting Birkat Hachamah, the Blessing of the Sun. The blessing, recited every 28 years, marks the time that the sun is in the exact place it was in when the world was created (Brachot 59b).

It may seem strange to recite a blessing that relates to the sun since Jewish observance generally is more oriented toward the moon. Rosh chodesh, Judaism’s celebration of each new month, is based on the new moon and creates the foundation for the Jewish calendar.

So why this Blessing of the Sun? What is the importance of celebrating the anniversary of its creation?

The Torah describes the sun’s creation in the Book of Genesis, Chapter 1, lines 14 to 19. We recite these lines from the Torah as part of the Birkat Hachamah service. In lines 14 and 15, God creates two lights that appear to be equal in strength and are responsible for separating day and night, as well as marking holidays, days and years. The Torah does not name these lights, but one can assume that the light of the night is the moon and the light of the day is the sun.

In line 16, however, something happens: The Torah makes a distinction between the lights. God pronounces the light of the day (the sun) to be the greater light and the light of the night (the moon) to be the lesser light.

What causes the change from the apparent equality of sun and moon in lines 14-15 to the dominance of the sun in line 16? Why this dominance of the sun when it simply is simply not the case in Judaism?

While both the sun and moon play an equal role in separating day and night, the moon as noted plays a more dominant role in marking holidays and determining the calendar. Why, then, does God pronounce the sun to be dominant over the moon?

The Rabbis of the Talmud tell us a story intimately connected to these lines from the Torah (Chullin 60b). When the sun and moon were created, the Rabbis tell us, they indeed were equal. But the moon asked God, “Is it possible for two kings to utilize the same crown?” There cannot be two lights that rule the sky; one must be dominant.

In the story, God seems to have heard the question as a display of the moon’s arrogance and punished the moon by having the moon diminish itself. The moon responded, “Is it fitting that because I said a correct thing before You that I must diminish myself?” The moon explained that it was not being arrogant and simply was stating a fact: There cannot be two kings.

God, heeding the moon’s words, rescinded the punishment and made the moon more dominant than the sun in determining the calendar and holidays. God also instructed the Jewish people to prepare a “chaparah,” an atonement sacrifice, on God’s behalf. In other words, according to the Talmud, God acknowledged that God committed a sin against the moon. The sacrifice was offered every rosh chodesh and is fulfilled today by offering the Musaf prayer (the additional prayer) on rosh chodesh.

Perhaps in telling this story, the Rabbis of the Talmud wished to present a new way of looking at God. The story portrays a God who can commit a sin and do teshuvah (repentance), a startling new way to look at God and, certainly, an awesome model for our own practice of teshuvah.

While the Blessing of the Sun marks the anniversary of the creation of the sun, it also may be viewed as the anniversary of this Talmudic story. The Rabbis told the story to embellish the description of the creation of the sun and the moon in the Torah. Their embellishment created a moment in time in which the Jewish people could look at God in a different way. That moment is commemorated by Birkat Hachamah.

On a more general level, think about the way the sun renews itself each day. This can be seen as a model for the way we might renew our relationship with God. Every day the sun rises and sets; so, too, every day we need to renew our understanding of God. Birkat Hachamah is a unique extension of this idea. Thus I believe that when we recite Birkat Hachamah, we must strive to renew our understanding of God, to re-envision God.

Let me share what will be going on in my mind — my internal iPod — when I recite Birkat Hachamah this year. Recently I met someone who told me that he had experienced a series of tragedies. He could not reconcile these tragedies with his vision of God, a vision in which God is directly involved in the events of the world. This posed a difficult challenge to his faith in God.

Asked for guidance, I tried to help this individual re-envision God. I explained that it is possible to envision a God who is not directly involved in the events of the world. This is not to say that the vision of God being directly involved in the events of the world is incorrect; God is infinite. Therefore we are able to, and perhaps need to, utilize as many visions of God as possible.

In a vision of God where God is not directly involved in the events of the world, God gives us hope when all we feel is despair, strength when all we feel is weakness and love when all we feel is hate. God gives us these blessings, and with these blessings we have the ability to make miracles happen.

As we recite Birkat Hachamah this year, let us use each day’s new light of the sun to continue to look at God in new ways. In so doing, together with God, we renew creation.

(David Kalb is the rabbi of Minyan Yavneh on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the head of academic fellowships at the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.)

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