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Why The Sun Also Rises
by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

The title of Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, was borrowed from Ecclesiastes 1:5: “The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to his place where he arose.”

The ancients bowed down to the sun and offered sacrifices to it. They revered it as the greatest god in the universe. Every culture had its own version. The Greeks and Romans knew it as Helios; the Egyptians called it Ra; to the Hindus it was Surya. As far removed as most people are today from idol worship, it isn’t hard to understand why they would deify the sun, since the ancient agricultural societies were completely dependent on it for survival. It dominated the sky; an immense radiant orb, source of all power. A power whose heat you could feel, whose majesty you could see at its risings and settings. Solar energy was the brand, bigger than the moon and the stars, more splendid than anything else. And it was something you could depend on without doubt; nothing could stop it from rising and setting every day to give life to the world.

Abraham, the first Jew, was the first to take a stand and refuse to bend before the solar cult. In its unvarying regularity, its absolute predictably, he perceived not a demonstration of strength, but rather evidence that the sun has no independent power of its own, that it follows its course in the heavens at the behest of a greater power. That greater power, the Creator of the universe, was also creator of everything else, including all the other objects of worship.

To be sure, few of the idolators of his time were swayed by Abraham’s arguments. On the contrary, not only did they continue bowing to the sun god by whatever name, they took pains to demonstrate their contempt for the upstart Jewish religion. In the Bait HaMikdash, the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, stood the Holy of Holies, which housed the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments and given to Moses. This was located in the western side of the Temple, adjacent to the Western Wall. The entrance of the Temple was on the eastern side, in the direction of the Mount of Olives. During Temple services, people would enter from the east and face west in the direction of the Shechina, the Divine Presence.

Not so those who rejected the law of Moses. As the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel 8:16) describes it: “…their backs were to the palace of God, their faces eastward, and they bowed down to the sun in the east.” Their supplication was simultaneously a show of contempt for the Jewish God. This is why, according to the great nineteenth century Torah commentator, the Malbim, God commanded the entrance to be built in the east and the Holy of Holies in the west; in order to bow to the west to show our rejection of the sun worshippers. Thus did the descendants of Abraham turn their backs—literally—on the false beliefs of the past.

The very word for sun in Hebrew, shemesh, alludes to Abraham’s insight. Because there are no vowels in the traditional text of the Torah, shemesh may also be pronounced shamash, which means servant. Abraham understood that the great fiery ball is no master of its own will, but a servant of God and man. (The first appearance of the word shemesh in the Torah occurs in relation to Abraham. The first time a word appears in the Torah indicates its primary meaning. Thus, the primary sense in which the shemesh, the sun, is to be taken is that of a servant, not a master.)

The sun is a servant. It serves man with its warmth, giving sustenance to plants which convert its rays into food through photosynthesis. They in turn provide food for animals, which themselves become food for mankind. In addition, the mystical writings discuss ways in which the sun gives benefit to the earth itself of which we are not aware.

The sun also serves as metaphor: When Moses saw the bush burning without being consumed, he turned to see this extraordinary phenomenon. As he drew closer, an angel appeared to him in a flaming fire from within the bush. Then came a third stage, in which Moses experienced the prophecy of God calling unto him from the fiery bush. Thus, God led him in stages, from the natural to the supernatural to prophecy. Like a person who emerges from a long time in a dark room. If he would go out and gaze immediately at the sun, it would blind him; one has to adjust gradually to the change from dark to light.* So too in spiritual matters; one cannot know everything at once, the educational process must be gradual. Like the sun itself. It does not appear suddenly in its entirety over the horizon; only little by little, so slowly, its rising is imperceptible until after it’s happened. Such should be the rate of spritual growth, as well. People are often discouraged by lack of visible progress. They torment themselves with the misconception that their growth should be rapid, they want to feel improvement as it happens. But that’s not the way God created the world, as the sun shows.

Islam, which introduced monotheism to the pagans of seventh century Arabia, where the sun was a popular deity, forbids prayer at sunrise or sunset, lest it be taken for sun worship. In Judaism, by contrast, there is no such stricture. On the contrary, Jewish prayer, as well as the calendar day, is framed by the sun’s coming and going. Shacharit, the morning service, is synchronized with sunrise (though one may pray later, too), Ma’ariv can begin only after the sun has set and the night stars are out.

This is in keeping with the Jewish approach to the sun as servant. The sun is the Creator’s own mighty messenger, that rises and shines in mercy on the earth and its inhabitants, to bring us benefit in ways both physical and spiritual, some of which we can perceive and comprehend, and some of which we cannot.

* The blessing Yotzer Ohr says that the sun “shines on the earth and its inhabitants with mercy.” One interpretation (Eitz Yosef) of “mercy” is that it rises slowly rather than in a sudden, blinding fashion.

Sources: Meshech Chachmah to Genesis 15:17, on the word shemesh; Malbim to Yechezkel (8:16); Rabbeinu Bachaya to Exodus 3:1 on Moses and the burning bush; Eitz Yosef and Iyun Tefilah in Otzar HaTefilot, P. 260.

Reprinted with permission from

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