Wednesday, March 25th, 2009
Almost no one remembers anything about how the Blessing of the Sun was observed in 1953 or earlier. Reb Zalman Schachter, ordained by Chabad, told me he had no particular awareness of earlier blessings: “You got up in the morning, davened, and made a bracha.”
The Jewish Week & American Examiner, ancestor of the The Jewish Week, did not cover the 1981 ceremonies, but it did run one advance item – albeit buried on the bottom of page 42 – further illuminating how Brooklyn reacted in 1953.
(The New York Times first reported on the Blessing of the Sun with a few paragraphs in 1981. I couldn’t find any copies of the 1953 paper that was only known as The American Examiner to see how it was reported in Jewish papers at the time, or how earlier Blessings of the Sun were reported. With various name changes, The Jewish Week began publising in 1875 as The Jewish Messenger. )
Here’s the 1953 story told by David Gross, then the associate editor of the JW-AE, indicating there was more excitement among Brooklyn’s frumest than I was led to believe. What is interesting, though, is that he writes about the blessing, “To observant Jews, every mitzvah is sacred,” indicating that most reports are correct, the Blessing of the Sun wasn’t on the radar of the Jewish community at-large, unlike the mainstream communal acceptance of the blessing that took seed in 1981.
Here’s how Gross tells it:
“To observant Jews, every mitzvah is sacred, even one that he performs daily and routinely. The idea of a mitzvah that can be performed only once every 28 years is, therefore, of special concern to the traditional Jew. And therein lies a tale – the story of the last birkat ha-chamah in New York and how 11 rabbis almost became overnight parachutists.
“In 1953… in Brooklyn, especially, there was much excitement… Rabbis, laymen, students, everyone familiar with the special mitzvah of blessing the sun” waited for the day.
The trouble was, “there was a steady downpour… night after night of showers. If it rained on the 4th day of Nissan,” the 14th of Nissan in 2009, “the mitzvah of blessing the sun would be hollow. The sun had to be seen [and] in 1953, on the eve of the rare event, the weatherman promised… continuing rain and showers and no glimpse of the sun was in the offing.
“In a yeshiva in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a group of rabbis gathered to consult on what to do. Outside they could see the rains cascading down. What to do? …. Someone suggested renting a plane, flying above the clouds and reciting the blessing from on high….
“Every commercial, charter, private airplane company in the region was contacted. Nobody had a spare plane. Another suggestion: call the police department. They have planes. Maybe? Who knows?” The police had only two planes in service and both were busy. They called the Coast Guard, and only got sympathy. How about the Army?
“At 2 in the morning the phone rang. It was the Army. Get your people (but no more than 11) to Floyd Bennet Field in Brooklyn at 7 a.m. …. The rabbis were ecstatic! Who needs sleep? In a few hours, they agreed, they’d be up in an American Army aircraft, and ready to pray for the sun’s continuing beneficence.
“At 3 a.m., the phone rang again. It was the Army, and they said that everyone would have to be at the airfield an hour earlier, at 6 a.m., because of a strict regulation that nobody could board an army aircraft unless he had been taught the basics of jumping out of a disabled plane with a parachute. The rabbis would be given a one-hour course in parachuting, and then, up and above the clouds for the eagerly awaited mitzvah that occurs only once in 28 years.
“The 11 rabbis chosen slept very little that night. At five, ready to leave for the airport, they looked out… the rains had stopped, the sun was shining in all its glory, and the Army’s gesture of support would not have to be carried out.”
Here’s what struck me: That in 1953, they cared about only the blessing, not about the story. If it was 2009, and any bunch of shul guys could hitch a ride on an Army plane to say the blessing above the clouds, I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have taken the plane, rain or no rain, if only to tell the incredible story to other guys in shul or yeshiva, or to impress a woman, or to tell the grandchildren, students or congregants about the lengths to which they went, the price they were willing to pay, the cleverness of it all.
And yet, in 1953, these Jews’ only concern was the blessing, the mitzvah alone. The mitzvah itself, the act of serving God, was satisfying enough. The story didn’t matter.
By 1981, and certainly by 2009, most American shul rabbis are less trusting of a mitzvah to draw a crowd all by itself. Or maybe it was the Jewish people who increasingly began wanting their mitzvot and observances to come with all sorts of accoutrements and accessories. An etrog is thought to be more desirable at $300 than at $36. Weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs, too. The higher off the ground, the better. Liberal rabbis rarely trust that a pure, unadorned davening is enough, they think they need “creative programming,” that rarely is all that creative. There are institutes and conventions dedicated to nothing but religious creativity Even the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox shul, doesn’t trust the haunting melody of Eicha on Tisha B’Av to break your heart; they feel the need to sing other songs and melodies between the chapters of Lamentations.
I wonder if there’s a rabbi in America who wouldn’t auction off 11 seats on an Army plane for the Blessing of the Sun, congratulating himself on being a fundraising genius, if he could have gotten the Army plane and pulled it off.
Few Jewish teachers know how to teach the spiritual satisfaction that they had in Williamsburgh in 1953.
I’m a 1981 guy. I can’t imagine that the Blessing of the Sun would have been as meaningful to me when I was 29 years old if I wasn’t atop the Empire State Building with Reb Zalman and dozens of friends, with a shofar blowing and the release of 70 balloons, and “Here Comes The Sun,” watching the most riveting sunrise unfold from out of the blackest horizon from my unobstructed view high above the ground, with endless celestial visibility.
And yet, there’s something about the simplicity of 1953, how little they needed. Or rather, how much they got from just standing on the sidewalk with heaven above and God by their side.