Those of us who are living in the northern hemisphere of our globe are now anxiously awaiting the arrival of springtime and the end of the winter weather woes. Here in Israel we had a fairly normal winter with a decent amount of rain and a few cold spells. In the main however it was an unremarkable winter, weather wise. Nevertheless, winter is winter and I for one am anxiously and excitedly looking forward to the arrival of the spring season, the blooming flowers and trees and the great holidays of Pesach and Shavuot that make up the book ends – the beginning and the end – of the spring season here in Israel.
The great song of springtime is recorded for us in the book of Shir Hashirim written by King Solomon, and according to the custom of many synagogues, is read publicly in the synagogue service of Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach. There is no more lyrical description of the advent of springtime than the one that appears in Shir Hashirim. It evokes not only the reawakening of nature and the change of weather that spring brings with it, but it also speaks emotionally about the mood and spiritual quality that attaches itself to the spring season. The Jewish people were freed from Egypt and from bondage in the springtime.
The Torah explicitly commands us to commemorate that freedom with the holiday of Pesach and the Jewish calendar is to always be adjusted so that this holiday falls in the month when spring arrives. So springtime has come to symbolize for the Jewish people not only a change of nature and mood but also change of status – from being slaves and servants to others to becoming independent and free people. It represents our ability to free ourselves from fulfilling the missions and dreams of others and to realize our own potential as a kingdom of priests and holy nation.
When most human beings were occupied in agricultural tasks, the change of seasons and the arrival of springtime were more noticeable in human society. In our current urbanized and industrialized world, springtime has lost some of its luster. The city dweller today hardly ever visits farms or orchards. In fact, industrialized and global farming has caused many people to think that apples and bananas truly grow in bags and are raised in fruit stores and supermarkets.
This disconnect that modern urban industrialized society has created between nature and humans is one of the more troubling aspects of modern society. I am not suggesting that our society return to horses and buggies and backbreaking farm labor. However, an appreciation of nature and its bounty, of the change of seasons and the weather patterns that accompany it, can only serve to strengthen the sense of spirituality and the yearning for eternity that exists within all of us.
The pagan world was terrorized by nature and worshiped its various forms as angry gods who somehow were to be pacified even by human sacrifice. Judaism always viewed nature as being an instrument of God's will and as being a blessing for humanity, with the ability to harness its bounty and turn it into a positive and manifold gift to the human race. The coming of spring is a restatement of this belief and attitude.
Part of the legacy of our long and bitter exile has been this disconnect between the appreciation of nature and our entire educational system. One of the six sections of the Mishnah concerns itself solely with matters of agriculture, botany and farming.
This section of the Mishnah - Zeraim - was a neglected subject in rabbinic scholarship for centuries. Rabbi Menachem Hameiri, of early fourteenth century Provence, already stated that this section of Torah did not appear in the curriculum of the yeshivot of his time and place. This was true of all later generations of Jewish scholarship until the nineteenth century, which saw the beginning of Jewish immigration from the dark winter of Eastern Europe to the springtime of the Land of Israel.
As Jews began to return to the Holy Land and once again reconnected themselves to the land and its earth, the desert began to bloom and the desolate landscape turned green and verdant. All of the great prophets of Israel foresaw an agricultural and natural rebirth in the redemption of the Jewish people from exile and their return home to the Land of Israel. In fact, the prophets stated that the harbinger of the eventual redemption, in its totality, would be the rebirth of the natural produce and beauty of the land itself.
Springtime reminds us of the great miracle that we have witnessed and are part of. It guarantees us hope for the full completion of the process of redemption in our time.