Friday, March 27, 2009

After 28 Years: It is Again Evening, It is Again Morning, the Fourth Day

(For Ner Shalom Malakh, April 2009)

By now, most of you have heard about our impending ritual oddity - Birkat HaChamah, the Blessing of the Sun. This is the most infrequent blessing in all of Jewish tradition. We recite it only every 28 years, when the Sun is said to return to the very spot in the Heavens where it was created. We wait for this event with an anticipation usually reserved for rare astronomical occurrences like eclipses and comets. And while this is a celestial event, it is not exactly astronomical. Where the Sun sits today in the Universe (as we understand it) is not where it was in 1981, and certainly not where it was at its birth 4.5 billion years ago. The timing of this event defies our usual Jewish calendrics. We are a thoroughly lunar people, yet the calculation of the date of Birkat HaChamah is based on a 365.25-day year with the specific placement tethered to the Spring Equinox. Very solar, eh? Yet the number of solar years involved -- 28 -- sounds awfully like the number of days in a lunar month, making the span between blessings kind of a lunar month of solar years. And (I find this part chilling) since the Sun was created on the fourth day of this world, Birkat HaChamah always takes place on the fourth day: a Wednesday.

Like an eclipse or a comet, Birkat HaChamah makes me feel both big and small. Certainly tiny in relation to the Heavens; but somehow large in knowing that I, too, am a naturally-occurring part of all this vastness. The blessing we make is purposely vast. Instead of using our usual morning liturgy in which we bless God for creating the heavenly lights, in this instance we bless God as Oseh Ma'aseh V'reishit -- the catalyst of all Creation. My knees weaken when I think of trying to utter a blessing for this vastness. Perhaps that is the reason we only do it every 28 years: how could we, on a daily or weekly basis, hold the magnitude of that intention? Maybe it takes 28 years just to rev up.

The idea of the Sun returning to the place of its creation is beautiful. What if we could all do that? If we could really return, start again, try it differently. If we could be placed into our lives all over again by the same divine hand (or non-hand) that set the Sun in the sky like a painting on a picture hook. To return to the conditions of our creation and do it all differently. Or even do it all the same.

But of course we can't go back, and measuring our lives in 28-year intervals makes that painfully obvious. Twenty-eight years ago I was in college and somehow missed Birkat HaChamah. Twenty-eight years before that I wasn't on the planet. Whether I am on the planet 28 years from now is not in my hands. No, I can't go back. None of us can. Nor can the planet, which ages every moment and chafes under the mounting pressures we place on it. Nor can the Sun itself, so long-lived, but destined, like us, ultimately to fail.

And yet: this is our moment, our generation's moment. Our chance to grab the Sun by its rays and say, This is our piece of the Infinite. We may look longingly up and down the highways of space and time, but this is us, standing at the intersection of here and now. We hold this spot with joy, knowing we will never be here again, and we commit to making of this intersection what we can, for as long as we can. This is still Creation. We are the seed, and the soil, and the watering-can, and the hand (or non-hand) that holds it.

I'll see you early morning on April 8 (a Wednesday of course) so we may commit to this moment together.