June 23, 2017
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon
You know, it was a little bit hot this past week—like 116 degrees hot, like hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk hot, like the devil left here and went to hell for a break from the heat hot, like "It's so hot today I saw two trees fighting over a dog" hot. As the saying goes, “it’s a dry heat,” but so is the inside of a blast furnace and that doesn’t make it a great place to live and work.
Just to be factual—you know, not alternative factual, but really factual—that made Tuesday this past week the hottest day since 1994 in Tucson, and one degree cooler than the hottest day ever recorded, back in 1990, 27 years ago. Since it was also the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, that made for a day of eternal length and a sun of spectacular intensity: one long hot summer, all in just 14 hours and fifteen minutes of daylight.
On incredibly hot days here in the Sonoran Desert, one of the best ways to cope with the combustible quality of the superheated air we are compelled to breathe is to think of something cool and pleasant—like being here now and attending Chardonnay Shabbat services in the air-conditioned cool of our very own Temple Emanu-El. Here you have found, as you will each and every Friday night this summer, cool air, chilled wine and fruit and juices, refrigerated delicacies, and the relaxing, fun, temperate experience of welcoming the Sabbath with music and joy.
The only things inside this building that are warm are the hospitality and the friendly people. Temple Emanu-El’s Chardonnay Shabbat: the cool solution to a superheated summer.
But back to the length of these very hot days. The summer solstice on June 21st marks the time when the sun reaches its apex in the sky. In many traditions the summer solstice is celebrated as a kind of festival. In Scandinavia, where the midsummer days are nearly endless—actually, in the northern parts of Scandinavia, they are endless—museums and shops close for a midsummer holiday on June 21st or thereabouts, and people take mini-vacations and hold parties to celebrate, dancing around the maypole and wearing flowers. Oh, and by the way, up there it’s actually cool and comfortable in June.
Originally, in pagan traditions, midsummer’s day was the time to go to sacred sites and see the sunrise, often rising through a holy, astronomically-oriented stone construction. This was true of Stonehenge and Avebury Stone Circle in Britain and in sites dedicated to Li, the Chinese goddess of light—and it was also true six months later at the Indihuatana at Machu Picchu in Peru when the summer solstice for the Southern Hemisphere occurred. When Christianity came along, it changed the pagan Summer Solstice celebrations into festivals commemorating the birth of John the Baptist, a kind of summer parallel to the winter solstice celebration of Jesus’ supposed day of birth. In India, in Hindu tradition, a yoga festival is associated with the summer solstice, Guru Purnima, although it actually is held at the first full moon after the summer solstice.
Very likely humanity’s first religious connections were made with the sun, whose rising has always been associated with hope, light, energy, growth, and the flourishing of life. Which led me to wonder: so many ancient cultures focused on the sun as the source of all creation. You can see that clearly at nearly every sacred site in the world—and I have personally visited most of them—from England to Turkey to Egypt to Cambodia to Indonesia to Mexico. It is almost axiomatic that ancient religions began with some form of sun worship.
But Judaism did not do that. Instead, our ancestors decided very early on that God was not the sun, or the solar disk, or any other representation of the fiery burning ball of hydrogen we see in the sky. God was more than that, God was the Creator of the sun, and there would be no Jewish temples or stone circles or special sacred astronomical compasses dedicated to a solar lord. Even the Jewish calendar revolved around the phases of the moon, which was also not to be worshipped but used as a timepiece, allowing us to know where we were in the month and year. While every new moon is celebrated in a minor way as Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month—we start the new month of Tammuz on Monday this coming week—there is no such observance associated with the sun.
In Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, the sephirot, the ten spheres that encapsulate the various aspects of the divine, include some astronomical references. But even here the most important of the sephirot, Shechinah or Malchut, is related to the moon, not the sun. If we Jews have any astronomical focus, it is the moon that has our heart, or at least our attention. There is no important Jewish festival associated with the sun.
Still, when you look closely, you can see a bit of a solar flare even in Judaism. There is an obscure observance called the Birkat HaChamah, the special blessing of the sun when it returns once every 28 years to what tradition says was its original position when it was created. We did this Birkat HaChamah back in 2009, and for those of us who are still around in the year 2037—and I hope you are!—we will again have the chance to go outside and do the blessing thanking God for creating the sun. But obviously a blessing that you do only once every 28 years cannot be said to be central to Judaism.
We also know that almost every synagogue in the world has its ark on the eastern wall. This faces the rising sun, but that's only because most synagogues are located west of Jerusalem; if you are in a country east of Israel, the orientation is usually west, facing the Holy Land. Still, if you have been in our sanctuary on Shabbat or a Sunday morning or the morning of Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur, you have seen the sun shimmering through our beautiful stained glass windows, and you may well wonder if there isn’t a bit of solar flavor to this eastern wall orientation. And much earlier, there is even a Talmudic story, a midrash, that says that a convert to Judaism, Queen Helena of the Assyrian or Persian province of Adiabene, "… had a golden candlestick made over the door of the Temple," so that when the sun rose its rays were reflected from the candlestick and everybody knew that it was the time for reading the Shema. That is, the sun was used as a reflection of the moment when the Divine Will requested us to sing the prayer of God’s Oneness.
So on this week following the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, be aware of the fact that even we moonlit Jews have some minor religious connection to the sun that brings so much light and heat and growth to the world.
Still, the larger truth about our faith is that it reflects a deeper understanding of the workings of nature. All of this remarkable universe, this extraordinary and sometimes miraculous creation in which we have the privilege to live, was made by something much greater even than the sun. It is the work of a Creator who established the natural laws that governed its formation and evolution and very existence. And even when it’s too darned hot, it’s very cool to contemplate the fact that our ancient Jewish forebears understood this foundational fact long ago.
In the hotspur summer of our diurnally distemperate discontent, may we take cool and delicious comfort in the transcendent truth of God’s creative genius.