On the summer solstice, we enjoy the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. The sun climbs higher than any other day , and ushers in the warmth of summer. Celebrations erupt in Greece and Stonehenge, based on pagan traditions. In the ancient world, the day was exponentially more revered, due to widespread sun-worship and related traditions.
There is no Jewish practice associated with the summer solstice, save a relatively obscure Ashkenaz (northern European) tradition to throw out any drinking water found around the house on this day.
The Talmud, however, does relate a summer solstice story:
Rabbi Yehoshua was walking along the way with Rabbi Yosei the Kohen. They said: We too shall expound the Design of the Divine Chariot [matters of Jewish mysticism]. Rabbi Yehoshua began expounding. And that was the day of the summer solstice, when there are no clouds in the sky. Yet the heavens became filled with clouds, and there was the appearance of a kind of rainbow in a cloud. And ministering angels gathered and came to listen, like people gathering and coming to see the rejoicing of a bridegroom and bride. (Chagigah 14b, B. Talmud)
The section of the Talmud in which this story appears relates to the idea that mysticism is not for everyone. It can only be taught one-on-one, and even then only to a student who already grasps some key ideas on his own, thanks to years of study, diligent practice and love of our Creator.
On a simple level, the story of Rabbis Yehoshua and Yosei occurs on the summer solstice to emphasize that even on a hot, cloudless day their words of Torah aroused clouds of moisture into the air, which in turn created the beautiful semblance of a rainbow. Recall that in Torah, God's love for the people is associated more with life-giving rain for the crops and cooling clouds in the desert than the blazing sun, which was the focus of worship in Egypt.
On a deeper level, however, the Talmud includes the summer solstice detail to remind us that the longest day of the year is a time when God's presence is most concealed. While ancient civilizations from Egypt to Rome bowed to their idols on this day, celebrating the power of nature and its attendant deities, the Jews quietly looked inward.
Today it is rare to find anyone bowing to idols, yet idolatry is far from extinct. Avaricious materialism, whether in pursuit of money or pleasure, combines with a host of made-up rituals that often rise to the level of religion, to obscure a person's relationship with the Creator.
Let us thus take inspiration from Rabbis Yehoshua and Yosei to seize this day and remember on it Who made us and why we're here: to live, love, and transform this world into a fitting abode for the Divine Presence.
Through good deeds like feeding the stranger, visiting the sick, honoring our elders, and studying stories like the one above, we may hasten the day when God's presence among us is fully revealed, even on the summer solstice.
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With thanks to Rabbi Mendel Zirkind
Image by Ian Jacobs via Flickr