The Jewish Chronicle
Let’s drink to Pesach, the festival of spring
Opening the door for Elijah, herald of redemption, in the second half of the Seder is an explicitly messianic moment in the calendar. But for many of us this year, it might have carried a more immediate symbolism. Vaccines and variant strains permitting, we can dare to hope we may be able to welcome back friends and family into our homes as the lockdown restrictions start to be lifted.
Few of us last Pesach would have imagined having to sit down to another reduced Seder this year. But now there seems a way out of viral Egypt, Mitzrayim, which commentators linked to the word maytzarim, “narrow places”. The Chasidic masters read it allegorically, encouraging us on an inner journey to escape the constrictions that shackle our souls. But for us, the physical constraints have been all too real over the past year.
The experiences of the pandemic may have helped to reconnect us with another aspect of Pesach that has often been forgotten. For those of us lucky enough to have any patch of garden, our outdoor space proved a sanctuary in lockdown.
Sitting in the garden, seeing the buds return to bare branches, listening to the chirruping birds offered respite from our confinement. We could appreciate as perhaps we hadn’t before that Zman Cheruteinu, the Season of our Freedom, was also Chag Ha’aviv, the Festival of Spring.
Beccy Speight, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, noted that “lockdowns have brought few benefits, but the last year has either started or reignited a love of nature for many people. Nature is soul-food to us humans.”
For the Israelites of old, Pesach had an agricultural significance that we have lost in our urban settings. On the second day of Pesach, grateful farmers were to bring a sheaf of newly harvested barley harvest for a wave-offering in the Temple. Until it was brought, the Israelites were forbidden to eat their bread or roasted grains.
Traces of the past live on in some practices, notably the Counting of the Omer from the Second Day of Pesach, which commemorates the offering. The more observant refrain from eating produce made of chadash —- new grain planted in the spring after Pesach and harvested before the next Pesach — and instead are careful to eat yashan, “old” grain, planted before Pesach and harvested afterwards.
There is a lyrical evocation of spring in the liturgy when we recite the Song of Songs, with its vernal imagery, this Shabbat. “For the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;/ The flowers appear on the earth; / The time of singing is come,/ And the voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land.”
The Prayer for Dew on the first day of Pesach sounds a seasonal note with its plea for “ample wine and corn” in harvests ahead. However dutifully we recite it, we can hardly invest it with the same meaning it had for our ancestors whose livelihoods were tied to their crops.
The way we live today makes it understandable that we pay less attention to the seasonal elements of Pesach. But David Arnow, in Creating
The last year has reignited a love of nature for many people’
Lively Passover Seders, advances another explanation. “Downplaying the significance of nature within the Passover festival may also have represented a bulwark against the ageold tendency to worship nature”. History rather than nature became the focus of festivals.
So Shavuot, a purely pastoral affair in the Bible with the offering of first fruits, became associated with the momentous events at Sinai.
Although the agricultural features of Pesach may have receded into history, there is another reason now to be thinking of nature. Arnow quotes Rabbi Arthur Waskow, doyen of eco-Judaism, “Today the global climate crisis threatens the whole planetary web of life.” The call to environmental responsibility has become ever more insistent.
Putting the spring back in Pesach can help restore our bond with the natural world.
Arnow offers various practical suggestions including finding an opportunity to say some of the brachot that acknowledge natural beauty such as on fragrant plants or trees or incorporating special passages in the Seder.
Perhaps we can take a cue from the Spanish medieval poet Moses ibn Ezra, who penned a wine song in Hebrew for spring: “The hills have put on turbans of flowers, and the plain has robed itself in tunics of grass and herbs.”
Go out into the garden with a glass of wine and enjoy the sense of returning green.
But your rabbi probably wouldn’t endorse all the poem’s sentiments, to “drink all day” until the sun sets and “all night long”.