The Jewish Holidays and the Seasons: An Australian Reflection

The Jewish calendar has always been closely tied to the ecology of seasons, no matter what we’re taught in Hebrew School about ancient historic events. Sure, we exited from Egypt in the first month of the year, but we also call Passover “The Festival of Spring” and begin counting the Omer on the second night, harvesting the first sheaves of wheat that are used in Shavuot’s offering of the first fruits; and following through to Sukkot’s major harvest festival, called “Chag HaAsif”.

I knew this growing up because we would paint posters or arts and crafts, filling in the multiple names of Passover or Shavuot and singing songs about “Aviv Higiyah Pesach Bah” “The spring has arrived, Passover is here” in kindergarten.

There was only one small difference.

In Australia, we were upside down.

While we sang of little girls collecting freshly harvested walnuts with their new spring dresses and mothers airing out lemony-scented mattresses that mingled with the smell of sunshine into Jerusalem courtyards; our Pesach preparation were often spent layered up or huddled out under the garage door where we sprayed down, scrubbed and dried every piece of plastic children’s toy; eating grilled cheese under our “sukkah” patio while farming out sweatshirts. It wasn’t cold, and that’s the truth, but it was sufficient to make us wonder how this time could ever be called “The Holiday of Spring.”

The Jewish holidays were created to synchronize with the nature rhythms of a pastoral life, of a people who transitioned from nomadic tribes into agrarian society and as a result received a whole slew of laws, social mores and traditions based on their method of living. So every holiday became not just a remembrance of historic tradition, a testimonial to recall past moments like the Exodus from Egypt or receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai; but was also mapped to the traditional agricultural cycle, from the seeds of spring to the first fruits to finally reaping the harvest.

I’ve lived in New York for five years, and it was only about a year ago that the meaning of the festivals started to come alive for me.

Our birth as a nation begins in the spring, just as the buds begin to form. We clean out our homes, scrub the insides of our cabinets and our souls, and ready ourselves for exodus from the wintry languor that’s held us trapped for the last several months as we greet the Exodus from Egypt on Passover.

Passover isn’t just about freeing oneself from the shackles of habit and conformity – a spiritual practice I’ve been well aware of with my Chabad-Chassidic upbringing and penchant for the Twersky “From Exile to Freedom” addict’s Haggadah. It’s about stepping outdoors for the first time in months, shedding outer layers that have piled up in the harshness of winter, and freeing ourselves from the untold narratives we’ve been keeping company with throughout the isolated, dark winter. It’s about seeing the new buds on the trees and knowing that we, too, have another chance, to burst open into our fullness and greet the spring and summer with our true potential.

Shavuot isn’t just about spring dresses, green-bough-laden synagogues and summery fruit soups, though classic Jewish mommy blogs may have you believing that. Our evolution into a full-fledged people comes on Shavuot as the buds turn into blooms and the summer scent is in the air, harvesting the first fruits and offering the initial sheaves of barley to the Creator who makes the fields grow, as we simultaneously recall our own development into the first fruits of harvest when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The mountain was different from the rest of the desert vegetation, covered in glorious vegetation and flora, and as we decorate synagogues with plants and flowers and begin cooking delectable spring vegetables, we find ourselves in the state of receiving once again: Receiving from the Creator; receiving from nature; receiving abundance; and willing our crops to grow.

As we move into the summer months, the time of mourning resonates with the long, hot sticky days, as oppressive as they are liberating, as challenging as they are enlightening. The summer might appear easier, without the pain of snow and ice, but the work is long and laborious, much like the exile we’ve been forced into for the last several millennia, felt so palpably in the summer months.

When the fall comes, Sukkot reminds us of the abundance ready for us to reap after the work of exile is complete. In Australia, we would step outside into the spring air and delightedly climb into the Sukkah, imagining an idyllic summer coming up after a dark winter of struggle. Instead, in the northern hemisphere I find myself searching for the jacket I’d long left behind and wondering what’s in store for me in this new year to come, invigorated after a sunny summer.

We sit outdoors despite the growing chill in the air and embrace the fruits of an abundant harvest, enjoying new fruits and vegetables and the cornucopia of delights that the earth brings us. We look at the fruits of our harvest work and feel well equipped to store up those goodies in the cellar for the winter to come.

And as we move into winter, the month of Cheshvan so accurately mirrors the psychological move towards winter, towards rain, towards moving into darkness in order to rejuvenate the soils below for an upcoming year of planting.

In Australia, November is spring, when the horse racing events become paramount in the cultural life of the average Melburnian and spring fashions are the topic of conversation. In the Northern Hemisphere, we sink into the darkness and await that one bright light on the horizon – Chanukah.

Mirroring the winter solstice, a time for bringing bright lights into the darkest days of the year, we dig deep within ourselves to find the way to keep going through wintry periods as we light flames for eight days and nights and store up all the light we need for the next several months of waning daylight.

We have one more speck on the horizon – the joy of Purim, the laughter that comes from knowing we’re at winter’s end; before we will greet the buds of Passover and spring.

Except for the piece in between Chanukah and Purim. The Fifteenth of Shevat – Tu B’shvat, as its known. A day to celebrate the New Year for trees, one of four New Year days in Judaism.

Coming in the middle of the dark of winter, it’s not like Chanukah, an evident injection of light into blackness, but a real anachronism.

This one always made sense back home. New Year for trees! Let’s go outside and plant some!

No sweat, in the heat of the summer. (Well, a little sweat.)

But in New York, in Jerusalem, in America. When the ground is frozen, when the wind is howling, when the snow is falling, when our backyards are buried up to our waist in snow – why talk about trees? Why celebrate nature and her cycles when we’re in the deepest, darkest part of it all?

Trees symbolize the cycle of life, and it doesn’t take an ecologist to know that. But as they go through their cycle of shedding, budding, growing and shedding once again, we learn about our lives and see the spiritual cycle that all humans take part in, whether we like it or not, whether we have four seasons in Chicago, flipped seasons in Melbourne or no seasons in Ecuador. Because even when it looks like the darkness is outside and the snow covers the ground, when we can’t see anything but inside our own selves, we can look within and see the little buds shooting out, taking in the snow and the rain as cultivation of our true selves on their way to bloom this spring.

So when we arrive in the dead of the winter and the snow covers the ground, when we’re struggling to leave the comfort of our homes and see what’s outside and what lies beyond our immediate selves, we have Tu B’shvat.

Tu B’shvat, the time for seeing the potential within, for knowing that even if we lie couch comatose and battle the rains and snow outside, there’s a shoot growing under the snow, the shadow of a bud under the growth, pushing through the frozen ground, awakening our spirit that’s exhausted by a sun that never shows itself and elements that make it harder to exist.

For knowing that although the outside stays dark, the earth is turning, every so slightly, towards longer days and brighter skies; and the roots are beginning to fuel the trees with the life-giving sap that will bring us a blooming spring and bountiful harvest, just as it did in years past.

And when the snow melts and it all blows away, when our winter poundage melts away and we shed the sweatpants for our new spring fashions, our rebirth has begun months earlier, on the festival of trees.

For inside the snowstorm and underneath the slush and ice, the potential for new life exists. The buds are there, buried deep within the boughs of the tree. The seeds are there, germinating in the roots of the tree. The conception of the natural world begins, moving from seed to womb, ready to spring into actualization on the first of Nisan.