The following article appears in the Wall Street Journal:
According to Talmudic calculations, every 28 years the sun is in the exact position it occupied at the time of Creation. As it happens, that moment falls on Wednesday, April 8, of this year, at sunrise — just hours before Passover begins. There is a brief blessing for the occasion, too. It is called Birchat Hachamah, Hebrew for “blessing of the sun.” But the sun is a hot topic these days, not least because of global warming, and this time around the blessing, in itself, is not enough: A whole environmental message is being attached to what was once a simple ceremony.Thus Jews who wish to mark the occasion will find a variety of options, including a Manhattan rooftop service that supplements the blessing with yoga sun salutations and environmental speeches; a beachfront “mystical” service in Seattle; and an arts, music and “healing” festival in Safed, Israel. This year’s ritual has even inspired two Facebook groups: The “Birkat HaChama” group had 256 members at last count, while the “Birchat HaChama one had 165. There is also a commemorative T-shirt being sold online, available in two colors and styles, emblazoned with the words: “Here Comes the Sun.”
One can also participate in a “Birkat Hahammah Art Contest” or sign on to a “Birkat Hahammah Covenant of Commitment” pledging to “hasten the day of environmental healing, social justice and sustainable living for all.” The art contest and covenant (which has 73 signatories so far) are sponsored by 15 institutions, including the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, the Jewish National Fund, the Reform and Conservative movements’ rabbinical associations — and Arava Power, a kibbutz-founded company that says it is “bringing Solar Power in massive quantities to both Israel and Jordan.”
The Hebrew blessing itself — the English translation is “Blessed are You, King of the Universe, who makes the works of creation” — is quite brief, its text the same as the blessing one is commanded to say upon seeing a natural wonder like lightning or the Grand Canyon. At its last scheduled recitation, back in 1981, Birchat Hachamah was virtually unheard of outside the Orthodox community. While approximately 300 “neo-chasidic” and “renewal” Jews, led by Orthodox rabbis Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach, commemorated the moment atop the Empire State Building, the event generated little media coverage, and most people who recited the blessing simply did so as a postscript to daily morning services in Orthodox synagogues. In 1953, according to Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, the ritual didn’t even garner a mention in “The American Jewish Yearbook.”
But that was before global warming became a household word, before the advent of a Jewish movement that has spawned “environmental bike rides,” Jewish environmental curricula, Jewish organic farms, Jewish community-supported agriculture groups and even free-range, organic kosher poultry.
“There is no question that our relationship to the physical world and the sun is different than it was 28 years ago, let alone 2,000 years ago,” says Nigel Savage, whose Jewish environmental group, Hazon, is organizing a sunrise ceremony on the roof of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. The Hazon event will also officially launch the Jewish Coalition for a Sustainable Upper West Side, a campaign pushing for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly policies in the neighborhood.
For Mr. Savage and other Jewish environmental activists, it makes sense to connect “blessing the sun with the power of the sun and with some understanding of how the sun’s rays are affecting the planet in the 21st century.”
The Teva Learning Center, a group that teaches about Judaism and the environment at Jewish day schools, summer camps and Hebrew schools, has dispatched a special “Birchat HaChama” bus. Running solely on reused vegetable oil, the bus has been visiting synagogues and Jewish community centers along the East Coast and in Ohio, sharing information not just about the sun blessing but also about a variety of environmentally friendly technologies, such as solar-powered ovens.
Teva’s director, Nili Simhai, says the blessing provides an “opportunity to celebrate the abundance the Creator has given us and to appreciate the glory of the world we live in and to say, ‘What are we doing with that abundance? Are we really using it wisely?’ ”
All of this is “a little bemusing” to Rabbi J. David Bleich, a Yeshiva University Talmud professor whose scholarly tome “Bircas HaChammah” was published in 1981 and re-released this year by the Orthodox Jewish publishing company ArtScroll Mesorah. According to Rabbi Bleich, environmental concerns are “issues in and of themselves and are totally unrelated to the blessing of the sun.” He sees the blessing as an occasion to acknowledge the wonder of God’s creations, not a political statement. “I suppose you can connect anything,” he says. “You can draw dots and lines; you don’t have to be logical.”
But Brandeis’s Mr. Sarna points out that the environmentalist remaking of the sun blessing mirrors the transformation over the past few decades of Tu b’Shvat, the Jewish “birthday of the trees,” from a Zionist holiday to a sort of Jewish Earth Day. “Some will be unhappy with that, and others will understand that’s a process as old as ritual itself,” Mr. Sarna says. “When one looks at Jewish history, one finds there are rituals and practices that one generation discarded suddenly take on wonderful significance for a new generation.”
Of course part of the modern appeal of this particular blessing is that it occurs so infrequently: only two or three times in a lifetime. Says Mr. Sarna, “It’s far easier to observe a once-in-28-year ritual than a daily one.”