The holiday of Passover is my favorite Jewish holiday for many reasons. One of them is the fact that Passover is our Jewish spring festival. With the advent of spring, we begin to sense the renewal in nature and it provides us also with the opportunity for spiritual renewal.
When my family and I were younger, we spent many Passover holidays in the Washington D.C. area with family, and each time we saw the cherry blossoms bloom, which was an amazing experience year after year. And now, here in Israel, we can smell the fragrance of spring buds and flowers on our pathway to our home and in our garden, where we see trees that were dormant all winter coming back to life.
In our Jewish tradition, there is a blessing for this:
We thank God that "nothing is lacking in God's world, created with wonderful creations and lovely trees that human beings could enjoy them". (From the traditional prayer book.)
This helps us to be mindful and grateful for the beauty in nature at this time of year.
One of my favorite Haggadot (Hebrew plural for Haggadah, the book that we use on Passover to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt) is that of the Kibbutz movements in Israel (Hashomer HaTzair, the Young Guard) which, in its own very special way, focused on the spring mood in the way they opened the telling of the story. This haggadah begins with a quote from the book of Exodus:
This month shall be for you the chief of the months, the first it shall be for you of the months of the year, the month of spring. On the 14th day of the spring months, being the month of your deliverance from bondage. And this day shall be for you a day of commemoration: you shall celebrate it as a feast throughout your generations, as a commandment forever, for on this very day your hosts left Egypt. Today you have become a nation. (Exodus, chapter 12)
And then the text goes on to quote a famous midrash, a creative interpretation by the rabbis of the Talmudic period (2nd-6th century):
'The world was created in Nissan'. In Nissan, the patriarchs were born. In Nissan, they were redeemed. In Nissan, we will be redeemed in the world to come. How do we know that the world was created in Nissan? Because it says: 'And the earth brought forth grass and herbs yielding seeds, and tree-bearing fruit'. Which is the month in which the earth is full of grass and trees which begin to produce fruit. It is the month of Nissan. (From the Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah)
It is interesting that the framers of this version of the Passover story, who were atheistic or agnostic kibbutz members, nevertheless drew heavily on Jewish Tradition, including both the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.
In case we weren't fully aware that this is the month of spring, the editors of this telling of the story of Passover bring us one more famous and beautiful Biblical passage:
Today you go forth in the month of spring. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers are seen in the land. The time of the nightingale is come and the voice of the turtle-dove is heard in our land. The fig tree brings forth perfume in its green figs. And the vines with young grapes are fragrant. (From the Song of Songs)
Indeed the Song of Songs is replete with many mentions of springtime. This book is also chanted in synagogues—all or in part –on the Shabbat during intermediate days of the Passover holiday, with a special melody for this occasion. It is just one more way to remind us that spring is here and we should be mindful of it in our lives.
In the traditional order of the telling of the story, there is one short blessing that we say which makes us aware of spring.
Blessed are You, o Lord our God, king of the universe, who brings forth fruit of the earth.
But the focus on nature is not as central in the traditional telling of the story as in more contemporary ones.
In addition, for many years, I would ask one of the Christian or Jewish guests at our seder to share their favorite poem about spring, and this always enriched our experience. Other religious and humanist traditions also celebrate spring as a time of hope and renewal, and it was always inspiring to hear a reading from another tradition.
One of the most famous lines about spring that I have always liked is from a poem by Alexander Pope (in An Essay on Man):
Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blessed.
In this season of spring time, which will also be celebrated by Christians around the world in their own way in a few weeks, may we be inspired to keep hope alive, to resist the darkness and despair that dominates our headlines, and to renew our commitment to creating a better world, a world of peace and harmony, justice and security, for all of God's children.
(This is the second in a series of posts on "Approaching Passover".)