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In Praise of the Sun

Siem Reap, Cambodia temple at sunrise

Sermon Beha’alotecha 5779, Summer Solstice Shabbat

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

Today is the summer solstice, longest day of the year here in the northern Hemisphere. Which raises some questions about the sun and its role in our lives.

A physicist is giving a lecture at a Jewish retirement home and explains that in 5 billion years the sun will burn out, and all life at we know it in the solar system will end.

Upset, on old man, Saul Epstein yells out, "Oy vey, this is terrible, what can we do? How do we avert this catastrophe?”

The physicist responds, "Sir, why are you so upset? This won't happen for another 5 billion years."

"Oh, thank God," says Epstein. "I thought you said 4 million years."

As comedian Steven Wright says, “I stayed up all night trying to figure out where the sun went. Then it dawned on me.”

Today is the summer solstice. While we Jews have always used a calendar based on the cycles of the moon rather than the sun, a lunar rather than a solar calendar, it would be incorrect to say that the sun hasn’t played a major role in our own religious development.

During a sabbatical trip I took around the world four years ago I visited nearly 150 of the holiest places on earth in 20 countries and explored just what originally made them sacred in the first place. And while there are a variety of common themes among these holy places, ranging from scenic beauty to commanding locations to historic associations, the orientation of the sacred sites to the rising or sometimes the setting sun is almost always one of the reasons they were chosen. That was true on every continent I visited, from Europe to Asia to Africa to Australia to South America, and it was true for every single religious tradition. Everyone keeps one at least one eye on the sun when they locate their holiest places for worship, and everyone relates the rays of the rising sun to the presence of the divine here on earth.

This may go back to the deepest parts of our evolutionary psychology, to the way in which we sought light and warmth in dark, cold times, when the sun brought the hope of growth and warmth during frozen winters and over ice ages. But this solar focus is just as true of societies that grew up in scorching tropical climates like Egypt or Cambodia or Belize, where the sun often seems like the enemy, as it is in frigid zones like Poland or Finland or Peru, where the rays of the sun provide life-giving warmth and energy.

Of course, no matter the ambient temperature in a local climate, it is always true that without the energy of the sun our earth would be barren of life. Virtually everything needed to grow plants and evolve and sustain life comes from our local star, Sol. It’s understandable why so many religions look to the sun as a deity, a representation of divine power and favor.

Ancient Egypt, the culture in which our Israelite ancestors often lived, looked at the sun as its most important god, Ra, and had other divine manifestations of the solar disc, such as Aton. Their temples were all oriented towards the rising sun. And the sacred sites of the Canaanites and Phoenicians and Philistines and Babylonians were all oriented in the direction of the rising sun. We Jews didn’t do this, exactly: we faced towards Jerusalem wherever we were, and while for Jewish exiles living in the west that meant our synagogues turned to the east, the direction of the rising sun as well, for those Jews living east of Israel that meant that we actually oriented our temples westward, away from the sun. In China, where I led services for the holidays last year, all synagogues are oriented west, and that’s true in India and was true in Iran and Iraq as well.

But that’s not the whole story. In fact, the very choice of Jerusalem as the capital of ancient Israel may very well have been topographical, and was also related to the sun. In the days when the Temple stood, prior to the Roman destruction in the year 70 CE, the dawning light of the sun would hit the Mt. of Olives first and then spread over Yerushalayim, the city whose limestone walls turned a burnished gold when struck by the rays of sun. The Temple itself actually faced East, towards the rising sun, and the daily sequence was that as soon as the earliest light indicated the dawning of the new day, Olot HaShachar, the priests and people would chant the morning Shema aloud. Then the priest would make the morning sacrifice, followed by other offerings, and the day was properly begun.

The round shape of Jerusalem, a city surrounded by a circle of mountains, is the shape of a cup, a kind of sacred shape. King David was the man who chose Jerusalem to be his sacred capital city—he certainly knew the place, since he was a shepherd from Bethlehem, just 6 miles away. And when Solomon built the Temple he faced it towards the east, to accept the rays of the rising sun—just like the greatest Egyptian temple of Karnak in Luxor, or the sun temples in China or Japan—the land of the Rising Sun where the emperor was literally thought to be the son of the sun—or the Sun Temple in Konark, India or the pyramid of the sun in Teotihuacan near Mexico City, or any of the many, many other ancient temples oriented exactly that way.

No Jerusalem is particularly interesting because of its location as a raised city in the middle of a ring of hills and mountains. The only other place along the range of mountains and hills that form the central spine of Israel that has this shape, a cup-like circle of mountains or hills surrounding a town or city, is Hebron. Hebron was the original location of David’s first capital city of Israel, and the place where the Tabernacle was located for years before moving to Jerusalem.

When the Temple was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon, there were two pillars on either side of the entrance to the inner courtyard. These pillars had names, Yachin and Boaz, but most people don’t understand their purpose. They were there so that the light of the rising sun would come between them, shining through the pillars and illuminating the Ark in the Holy of Holies.

Our Torah portion begins this week with the words, “Beha’alotecha et haneirot, when you light the lights of the menorah, the candelabrum” of the Tabernacle. It is referring to the daily lighting of the olive oil menorah that kept track of the days of the week, and indicated to both priests and worshippers that God was present among them each and every day. That light was kindled by human beings, beginning each day with the light coming from that great, sacred lamp.

Yet there is the story in the Babylonian Talmud in the Tractate Yoma, a tale also found in the works of the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus. It tells of of the menorah (lamp) of Queen Helena of Adiabene, a prominent 1st century CE convert to Judaism, who donated this wonderful object to the Beit HaMikdash, the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It reads, "Helena had a golden menorah made [to be placed] over the door of the Temple, that when the sun rose its rays were reflected from the menorah and everybody knew that it was the time for reading the Shema,” according to the Talmud. What Queen Helena donated was probably not a menorah, that is, a candlestick in the typical sense, but a kind of brass or golden mirror that reflected the rays of the rising sun into the holy Temple. Some commentators compare this to the mystical aspaklaria hame’ira, the reflective mirror or looking glass that shines with divine light and energy. According to the story, this particular golden menorah shined the light of the rising sun into the holy Temple in Jerusalem, beginning each day with brilliant, sacred illumination that came directly from the first rays of the sun. And immediately after that light arrived the priests led the people in the proclamation of the morning Shema.

That is, we began each day with light of the rising sun shining into our most sacred space and completed the ritual with the public praise of the one God. The sun’s earliest arrival was the same beginning point used for rituals at Stonehenge, Luxor, Abu Simbel, Gobekkli Tepe, the ancient Greek temples at Olympus and nearly every Christian church, all oriented to welcome the rays of the dawning sun.

So even though we are much more focused on the cycles of the moon in our tradition, the sun plays a key role in Judaism, too. We do not worship it as a deity, of course, as one of a number of gods, but see it instead as one of the creations of a powerful and caring God of all creation.

In the prayers between the Barchu and the Shema in both the evening and morning services we have a section that praises God for creating the heavenly lights. The evening version is called Ma’ariv Aravim, and it highlights the way that God rolls light away before darkness and darkness before light, having created the heavenly lights and constellations that shine into our lives. But it is the morning version of this prayer, the Yotzeir, in which the coming of light in the morning is seen as evidence that God renews the work of creation every single day, m’chadeish b’chol yom tamid ma’asei v’reisheet. The light of the sun and its radiance are evidence of the goodness of God radiated into our universe and our own world, and shortly after we complete this blessing with the words, “Baruch Ata Adonai, yotzeir ham’orot, blessed are You God, creator of the heavenly lights” we will rise and proclaim Shema. It is a linguistic, liturgical version of the ritual our ancestors used in the days of the Temple. See the light of the sun, in practice or in text, acknowledge God’s creation, and then affirm God’s existence and love and holiness.

In Jewish mysticism, too, the Kabbalah, the orientation is towards the moon since the Shechinah, the only aspect of God with which we human beings can truly interact, is always associated with the moon. And yet, the most complete, fulfilled, perfect aspect of God among the Kabbalistic Sefirot is called Tiferet, and always associated with the sun. There is even an obscure Jewish ritual, called the Birkat HaChamah, the blessing for the sun that is performed once every 28 years, at the time the sun theoretically returns to the point it was at the very beginning of creation.

The central message of all this focus on the sun is simple: it is a way of acknowledging our profound gratitude to God for creating the natural world, and enabling us to stand and give thanks for our existence, which could not continue without God’s gift of the continuing balance of sun, energy, light and divine flow. Even in a climate like ours, in which we can take for granted the sun shining nearly 300 days a year, we do well to take a few moments and demonstrate our gratitude for that fact.

Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis of Assisi wrote a beautiful canticle to brother sun, a poem praising the divine source of our natural world:

Most High, all-powerful, all-good Lord, All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor and all blessings…

Praised be You my Lord with all Your creatures,

especially Sir Brother Sun,

Who is the day through whom You give us light.

And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendor,

Of You Most High, he bears the likeness.

During these long days of the summer solstice, take a few moments and reflect on God’s creation of the source of our light and energy, without which we wouldn’t be here at all. The simple Jewish blessing reads: Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet, Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the universe, who makes the great work of creation.

Let us bless the God who renews creation daily, and the sun God has made, on this long summer day and the many more to come.

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