April 9, 2018 – Rabbi Paul Steinberg

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 into 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. The Rabbis would recognize Rosh Hashanah, which is the first day of the Bible’s seventh month –the first of Tishrei – only later, as its own New Year.  Rather than focusing on the renewal of nature, Rosh Hashanah emphasizes a renewal of spirit.

This does not imply, however, that spring bears no wisdom or insight into soul.  Spring is indeed a Jewishly spiritual season, highlighted by ritual, including the festive Passover 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.

Each of spring’s days spiritually matter throughout the season’s counting of the Omer, which concludes with the climax of Shavuot – the festival celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Each day is a step toward Shavuot and the spiritual pinnacle of the revelation of Torah.  Thus the Omer culminates with the seasonal moment during which summer’s more mature light and heat overwhelms spring’s adolescent vigor, blazing toward autumn’s gentler elegance and winter’s still slumber.

Spring’s truth, therefore, is found in the progressive process of the seven weeks of the Omer, with each day a step toward spiritual growth. It is a Jewish custom to do additional learning during the Omer, particularly Pirkei Avot, the ethical credos of the early rabbinic sages, including:
“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 Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, 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 asks us to prepare, to take our growth seriously, and to apply what we study to our daily lives.  We are given a second chance in this New Year, while simultaneously warned: 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.

The wisdom of spring is the wisdom of process. Spring 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.

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