March 24, 2010
The wisdom of spring
The vivid bursts of springtime greens and yellows are not at all like the musty reds and oranges of autumn. Autumn is a season of decline — a time of impending loss, as seeds are hidden and scattered, and leaves fall away. During autumn, the days grow shorter and summer’s abundant power begins to fade to winter’s dormant death.
Spring, on the other hand, is a season of growth. With spring, there is an intuitive, childlike exuberance for what adventures may lay ahead. During spring, days grow longer, and November’s scattered seeds blossom into buds of hope and promise. What sage could have conceived of the glory of spring? What artist could have painted its wild beauty, had not God done it in nature first?
Perhaps the poet of Song of Songs, our springtime love song recited during Passover’s Sabbath, expresses spring’s essence best:
“Arise, my darling, my fair one, come away. For now winter is past; the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has come; the song of the turtledove is heard in our land. The green figs form on the fig tree, the vines in blossom give off fragrance. Arise, my darling, my fair one, come away.” (Song of Songs 2:10-13)
A spring is the starting place of a flowing stream, and, thus, it is no wonder our ancient ancestors dedicated spring as the season to start the new year. The Book of Exodus appropriately identifies the new year on the first of Nisan (the quintessential spring month), when nature so obviously becomes renewed. Rosh Hashanah, which is the first day of the Bible’s seventh month — the first of Tishrei — would later be recognized by the rabbis as its own new year, but rather than focusing on the renewal of nature and the world, it emphasizes a renewal of spirit.
This does not imply, however, that spring bears no wisdom or insight into the soul. Nature and spirit, our tradition teaches, are not distinct entities but interconnected agents of the Source of All Life. As Moses de Leon, the 13th century mystic, writes, “Down to the last link, everything is linked with everything else; so divine essence is below as well as above, in heaven and on earth. There is nothing else.”
So, then, what is the spiritual wisdom that spring bears? And what can we learn from Judaism about this season and the holy days that constitute its experience?
Spring is indeed a heavily weighted Jewish season. It begins with Passover and the preceding days — even weeks — of complicated preparations and cleaning. Of course, Passover culminates in the festive family seder and the subsequent weeklong matzah bonanza. Also, at the conclusion of the second seder, the period of the counting of the Omer, or sefirat ha-Omer, begins. Counting the Omer lasts for seven weeks with a special blessing for each day. Finally, spring, along with the Omer, concludes with the climax of Shavuot — the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. It is at the spiritual pinnacle of revelation that the season closes, when summer’s more mature light and heat overwhelms it, ultimately burning down again to autumn’s gentler elegance and winter’s cold slumber.
The truth of spring, however, does not lie within the profound meaning of Passover. Passover is the celebration of our national freedom (z’man heiruteinu); it is the beginning of the journey. And the journey continues from year to year, as the Jewish spirit is constantly leaving Egypt, never having quite fully left.
Spring’s truth is actually found in the Omer, which develops progressively, week upon week, each day acknowledged as a facet of spiritual growth. It is a traditional custom to do additional learning during the Omer, particularly Pirke Avot, the ethical credos of the early rabbinic sages. Therein we recite and remember such teachings as: “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I?”;
“You are not obligated to finish the task, neither are you free to neglect it”; and “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone.”
The seven weeks of the Omer are certainly filled with spring’s radiant enthusiasm, yet they are also paradoxically compounded by a sense of urgent responsibility. This season of spiritual growth and development must not be for naught. We must be prepared to take our growth seriously and apply the morals we study, as we are reminded in the Talmud that this was the very season that Rabbi Akiva’s disciples perished due to their own inability to be respectful and kind to one another. If we do not “grow up” during spring, if we do not depart from Egypt with a purpose for our freedom, ascending the mountain in greater compassion, balance, inner fortitude and humility, the giving of the Torah on Shavuot becomes irrelevant.
Spring is process. It is the child we encounter at seder, asking questions and staying up late with restless anticipation for what comes next. Spring is the potential and opportunity to deepen our lives with a newfound purpose.
Paul Steinberg is a rabbi and educator at Valley Beth Shalom and author of “Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Spring and Summer Holidays” (JPS, 2009), winner of the 2009 National Jewish Book Award.