Yes it does sound simple, but in reality without a sophisticated command of mathematics, astronomy and more, the whole enterprise would have fallen apart long ago, leaving mankind bereft of the world's only calendar capable of harmonizing solar and lunar cycles on an ongoing basis.
There are indeed myriad other details in the fine tuning of Jewish time, and one of them is currently the subject of quite a bit of buzz lately, 400,000 web pages worth in fact, and that is the upcoming blessing on the sun (birkat hachamah), which Jews do once every 28 years on a Wednesday morning in early April. The timing commemorates Creation itself, specifically the creation of the sun as described in Genesis.
This year, the birkat hachamah ceremony falls out on the eve of Passover, a timing so rare that it's only occurred a few times in history, most notably during the biblical exodus from Egypt. Many have highlighted the coincidental timing as an omen of the long-anticipated coming of Moshiach and our own exodus from the troubles and sorrows confronting Jews specifically and the world in general. May it take place immediately now.
My contribution to the birkat hachamah saga is a little a posteriori socio-astrophysical research I did to see if our collective blessing of the sun in April 1981 coincided with any special degree of solar activity. With 200,000 gathered at the Kotel and probably a million more worldwide, all focused on the sun, it only stood to quantum cosmological reason that the sun may have responded somehow. Out of 40 years of monthly data, April 1981 had the second highest level of solar flare activity, making the results highly significant statistically.
For details on this curious coincidence, see the article Praying With Fire in the Faith and Science newsletter issue titled Turned On by the Sun. That issue has several interesting articles.
About next week's ceremony, I'm not taking any bets. The 11-year cycle of solar weather is just now emerging from a very deep low as you can see at right. On the other hand, who knows? We can follow the trends at www.solarcycle24.com. After all, if one little mitzvah can bring Moshiach for the whole world, can't our coordinated, collective mitvos stimulate the sun?
Looking farther afield, about 200,000,000 light years farther afield, another astrophysical tale has just unfolded a few days ago, having lessons for us as we prepare for Pesach.
In the first observation if its kind (actual photo left), scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science and San Diego State University were able to watch what happens when a star the size of 50 suns explodes. As they continued to track the spectacular event, they found that most of the star's mass collapsed in on itself, resulting in a large black hole.
When stars like our sun finish off their hydrogen fuel, they burn out relatively quietly in a puff of expansion. But a star that's eight or more times larger than the sun makes a much more dramatic exit. In the enormous heat and pressure in the star's center, the core collapses inward, firing the rest of the star's material rapidly out into space in a supernova flash.
A supernova releases more energy in a few days than our sun will release over its entire lifetime, and the explosion is so bright that one occurring hundreds of light years away can be seen from Earth even in the daytime. Meanwhile, the star's core collapses further and further inward. When the exploding star is 20 times the mass of our sun or more, say the scientists, its gravitational pull becomes so powerful that even light waves can't escape. Such a star is called a black hole.
This new study tracks how a very large and bright star, 50 to 100 times the size of our sun, explodes at a fairly young age into a supernova and then collapses into a black hole, as theory predicts.
What can we learn from this, especially as we usher out our puffed up egotism (symbolized by leaven) and bring in our humility (matza)?
The matter and energy of a star are comparable to the material and spiritual aspects of a person. When there is a healthy balance between the two, a person is warm, radiant, stable and supportive, rather like our sun. But then there are those that are too massive, too full of themselves. They over-react, flare up in the heat of the moment and then burn out. All that's left is their ego and like the iron-core of a supernova they become self-absorbed, cold and lifeless.
It is true that the Jews are compared to the moon - we go through our phases. But when Moshiach comes, our Sages say, the moon will become radiant like the sun, a hint that already it's time for the Jews to emulate the relatively selfless sun, to become a sustainable source of light, warmth and life for all around us.