Thursday, April 2, 2009

Is the 'Blessing of the Sun' Joni Mitchell's favorite mitzvah?

There is a ritual mitzvah that occurs every 28 years: the blessing over the sun. And the time for this blessing is the morning of April 8. This is a mitzvah that is full of meaning and significance, easy to do especially with kids, and can take about 15 seconds. Here's what the blessing is, why it happens only every 28 years, and what people can get out of doing it, especially Joni Mitchell.

What is it?

Once every 28 years, we say the following blessing in the morning when we see the sun:

ברוך אתה ה' אלוקינו מלך העולם עושה מעשה בראשית
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, oseh ma-aseh vereishit

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who makes the works of Creation.

And then the shehechianu blessing.

This blessing is typically part of a longer service with other readings and prayers, but the core of the mitzvah is the blessing above. That's pretty much it. You can do it in about 15 seconds.

More info on Wikipedia, BlessTheSun.Org, and lots of other places.

Why 28 Years?

Let me clarify one point before beginning. The timing of this blessing is based on the assumption that the earth revolves around the sun in exactly 365 1/4 days and on the creation story in Genesis. The astronomy is off by a little bit (the earth travels around the sun in slightly less than 365 1/4 days), and the Genesis creation story is not science and not literally true, but it is still quite important as a story. This ritual is about meaning, not about scientific truth.

So here's how this works. According to the creation story, the sun was created on the fourth day, which is Tuesday evening / Wednesday day. In one year, the earth will return to the exact same place in its orbit, but it will now be rotated a quarter turn (since the solar year is 365 1/4 days). So it will take 4 complete years (with a leap year adjustment) before the earth returns to the same position in its orbit and the same side of the earth is facing the sun. However, it will then be a different day of the week. So it will take 7 groups of these 4-year cycles, or 28 years total, for (1) the earth to be back in the same place, (2) the earth to be facing the same way, and (3) the day of the week to be the same. At that point, we will have gone through three separate cycles multiple times and will be right back where we started.

The Purpose And Meaning Of This Mitzvah

Any mitzvah is more meaningful (and we are more likely to do it) if there is some purpose or significance associated with it. I would like to focus on two meaningful aspects of this blessing: the sun itself and astronomical cycles, and how they are important in our lives.

Blessings help us focus on things that are important. And this is a blessing over the sun because the sun itself is important. It generates heat and light, makes life possible, and keeps the earth in orbit.

And it is also superbly beautiful. Not only sunrises and sunsets, but also the details of the sun itself. For example, the picture above is a close up of a sunspot, which is a little area of high magnetic activity on the surface of the sun and is slightly cooler than the surrounding areas.

But the most striking aspect of this blessing is not its subject (the sun), but its frequency (once everyone 28 years). This long cycle is a combination of two astronomical cycles (days and years) and one cycle that people created (a seven-day week). And this long cycle gives us a great perspective on two aspects of time: cyclical time and linear time.

Cyclical time is time as an endless cycle: the sun rises and sets, the seasons come and go, and at the end of a cycle, we end up right back where we started. Joni Mitchell put it well in The Circle Game:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

But linear time involves a different understanding of time. Cycles may happen, but we move forward. We become (hopefully) better people. Society improves. We discover new knowledge and invent better inventions. This year is not the same as last year; it is better, and next year will be better still.

Joni Mitchell's song is not just about cyclical time, despite the chorus. It is also about linear time. The verses make clear that the boy the song is about is growing up and changing:

Yesterday a child came out to wonder
Caught a dragonfly inside a jar
Fearful when the sky was full of thunder
And tearful at the falling of a star

Then the child moved ten times round the seasons
Skated over ten clear frozen streams
Words like 'when you're older' must appease him
And promises of someday make his dreams

Sixteen springs and sixteen summers gone now
Cartwheels turn to car wheels thru the town
And they tell him, Take your time, it wont be long now
Till you drag your feet to slow the circles down

So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty
Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true
Therell be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

This song (which always gets me a little teary) is a great juxtaposition of linear time in the verses, showing the child growing and changing, and cyclical time in chorus, with its circles and carousels and seasons.

And that's what I think the blessing over the sun is about.

We are all quite familiar with the shorter astronomical cycles --- days, months, and years --- and we use these cycles to break our lives into manageable and meaningful chunks of time. Thinking about our lives in a different unit of time gives a different perspective on our lives.

For example, Halley's Comet comes around every 76 years or so. It was visible in 1985 and 1986. I was 21 at the time, and I went out to the California desert with a few friends and some binoculars to see the comet. I realized then that the last time it came by (in 1910) I had not been born, and neither had my parents. Three of my four grandparents were small children. The next time Halley's comet will come by, in 2061, I will be 97, or more likely, dead. That was probably my one chance to see Halley's comet, and few people get to see it twice in their lifetime. But my children missed its appearance in 1986 (not having been born) but will be close to 60 when it rolls around again.

The blessing over the sun occurs every 28 years, a little more frequently than Halley's comet. It is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but because of its timing, most of us will have the change to celebrate this blessing three or four times in our lives.

The last time it occurred was in 1981. I was in high school then, and I am now in my mid-40s. Since them I have changed in many ways, and have not changed in other ways. I have achieved some goals, made progress on others, and other goals have fallen by the wayside. I fortunately have kept in contact with most of my good friends, lost contact with others (although they are all seem to be showing up on Facebook now), and have made other friends. In 1981, I was moving forward in my life, and the earth and sun and the days of the week were moving forward in their cycles. It is now 28 years later. They have returned to where they were in 1981, but I have fortunately moved forward and am different and in many ways better.

The blessing over the sun will be back again in 2037. My wife and I will then be in our early 70s. My small children will be in their early 30s. I am not only looking back to 1981, but looking forward to 2037. And I will take the opportunity next week to recite the blessing with my wife and children, and in 2037, my children can look fondly back to that distant spring in 2009 when they were small and we all said the blessing over the sun.

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