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Spring Forward

It’s not by coincidence that Pesach is always celebrated in the springtime; it’s a halachic requirement. What does the onset of spring have to do with the celebration of the Exodus?

The Jewish calendar is confusing, and it’s all because of the holiday we are now preparing to observe – Pesach.  In order to explain how, let us briefly review the difference between our calendar and the Gregorian calendar system used by the Western world.

The Jewish Calendar 101

The Gregorian system is based upon the Earth’s revolution around the sun, a process which takes 365.25 days.  This is a fairly simple system:  the calendar year spans 365 days, and the system accounts for the extra quarter of a day by adding a full day every four years.  The Gregorian calendar year is naturally in sync with the cycle of seasons, because the seasons are a function of the Earth’s position vis-à-vis the sun.  Therefore, January will always occur during the winter in the Northern Hemisphere, because it always occurs when the Earth is at the same position with respect to the sun, a position which results in cold weather for the Northern Hemisphere.  For the same reason, it is always warm in July, and so on.

The Jewish calendar, by contrast, works on the basis of the moon’s revolution around the Earth, which takes approximately 29.5 days.  In our system, each month is 29 or 30 days – the period of the moon’s revolution – and a year is, generally, 12 months.

Unlike the cycle of the Earth’s revolution around the sun, the lunar cycle is entirely unrelated to the seasons; it does not necessitate that any given month will occur at any particular season.  This is because our lunar-based year – the period of 12 months – consists of only 354 days, 11 days fewer than the 365-day solar year.  And thus each year, any given Hebrew date will occur 11 days earlier on the Gregorian calendar than it did the previous year.  If one year Rosh Hashanah falls on September 15th, then the next year it will be celebrated on September 4th.  As such, in theory, the Jewish holidays should be able to occur at any season.  Since the calendar year “shifts” 11 days each year, eventually, we would find ourselves celebrating Pesach in January and Hanukah in August.  Indeed, the Moslem holidays can fall at any season, because their calendar, like ours, follows the lunar system.

Of course, as we know, this never happens.  Pesach always falls in early spring, Rosh Hashanah is always observed at the end of the summer or early autumn, and Hanukah is always celebrated in the late autumn or early winter.  This is because we ensure to keep our calendar in sync with the cycle of seasons by adding an extra month to our year every 2-3 years.  By extending the year by 30 days, we compensate for the days that are “lost” on the other years.  And so Hanukah always falls out during late-autumn or early-winter, and Pesach always falls during the early part of the spring.

Why is this necessary?  Why must we complicate matters in order to synchronize our calendar with the solar cycle?  Why couldn’t we follow a purely lunar cycle, like the Moslems, and allow our holidays to fall at any season?

As we said, it’s all Pesach’s fault.

The Torah commands in the Book of Devarim (16:1), “Shamor et hodesh ha’aviv – Guard the month of spring.”  Our tradition interprets this verse as introducing an obligation to ensure that Nissan, the month in which we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, will always fall during the spring season.  Our ancestors left Egypt during Nissan, which that year occurred in the springtime, and the Torah commands us to see to it that our annual celebration is always held during this season.  We accomplish this through the leap year system, whereby we adjust the lunar calendar so it is synchronized with the solar calendar.

However, this command requires explanation.  Why is it so important to celebrate the Exodus specifically during the spring?  Why would our celebration be deficient if it were held in the middle of the summer, or in the winter?  What connection is there between springtime and the Exodus that necessitates establishing this complicated calendar system?

The Power of a “Mashehu

Tradition teaches that when Beneh Yisrael were slaves in Egypt, they suffered both physically and spiritually.  Just as their bodies were broken from the harsh labor, their souls were shattered by their prolonged exposure to the decadent culture of ancient Egypt.  Kabbalistic sources describe how the nation plummeted to the “49th level of impurity,” just one step away from the 50th, the proverbial “point of no return.”  It might be more accurate to say that they had reached the 49.99999th level.  The Arizal taught that if Beneh Yisrael had remained just a moment longer in Egypt, they would have been permanently lost, without any hope for spiritual recovery.  They had already fallen off the cliff, and were hanging on by their fingernails.  But just then, as they stood on the brink of spiritual oblivion, Gd came to rescue them from their physical enslavement and their spiritual disintegration, and brought them out of Egypt.

This aspect of the Exodus underlies one of the most striking halachot that apply on Pesach. 

Hametz, as we know, is forbidden for consumption throughout the holiday.  Curiously, unlike other forbidden foods, hametz on Pesach is not subject to the famous rule of bittul (negation).  If a small morsel of non-kosher food becomes mixed with kosher food, then under most circumstances, if it constitutes a very small proportion of the mixture, it may be disregarded, and the mixture is thus permissible for consumption.  When it comes to the prohibition of hametz on Pesach, however, even a mashehu – the tiniest quantity – is forbidden.  No matter how small the piece of hametz is, and no matter how large an amount of non-hametz food it mixed with, it cannot be disregarded, and the entire mixture is forbidden for consumption.

This unique feature of the hametz prohibition is commonly understood in light of the well-established association between hametz and the yetzer hara (evil inclination).  Hametz is seen as a symbol of our human weaknesses and vices, our sinful impulses and negative characteristics.  As we begin Pesach and celebrate the birth of our nation, we are told to eliminate all the hametzfrom our homes to symbolize our commitment to work towards eliminating our sinful tendencies from our hearts.  As such, even a mashehuof hametzis forbidden, as this is the time for us to resolve to eradicate all vestiges of evil and sinfulness from our hearts, down to the very last morsel.

Another explanation, however, relates to the fact that our ancestors were rescued from the 49th level of impurity, from the brink of permanent spiritual destruction. 

Remarkably, even after falling to such depths, Beneh Yisraelwere able to recover, and just seven weeks later they stood at Mount Sinai and beheld Gd’s revelation.  This was possible because of the “mashehu” that remained, the minuscule fraction of purity that was preserved.  The people were just a small fraction away from spiritual oblivion, but that small fraction proved to be very significant.  The tiny morsel of purity that remained turned out to be the nucleus of spirituality which quickly grew and developed.  That “mashehu” of holiness was not negated by the ocean of contamination in which it was submerged.  It rather remained intact and formed the starting point of the people’s dazzling spiritual recovery.

For this reason, some have explained, even a “mashehu” of hametz is forbidden on Pesach.  The event of the Exodus proves that a “mashehu” is not always negated by the overwhelming majority.  We commemorate the “mashehu” that sustained our ancestors in Egypt by abstaining from even a “mashehu” of hametz, expressing the notion that even a tiny amount of something can assume great significance.

How do we explain this concept?  How is it possible for a minuscule fraction of a person’s being to remain pure and pristine after the rest has become impure?  Putting it in simpler terms, how could Beneh Yisrael spiritually recover from this condition?  Or, bringing the question closer to home, how is it that people who lived for many years without any connection to holiness can become pious, observant Jews?  What prevents their final “mashehu” from being lost?

The Rock and Spiritual Potential

After the sin of the golden calf, as Moshe pleaded with Gd to forgive the people and to accompany them as they journeyed to Eretz Yisrael, he suddenly interjected with an unusual request: “Hareni na et kevodecha – Show me, please, Your glory” (Shemot 33:18).  Gd responded by bringing Moshe inside “nikrat hatzur” – the crevice of a rock, and then showing him His “back,” so-to-speak.

This entire exchange is mysterious, and our great sages have worked long and hard to uncover its various layers of meaning.  One approach which is relevant to our discussion here is that Moshe expressed his concern about the future of the Jewish People in light of the tragedy of the golden calf.  After seeing how the people fashioned a graven image just weeks after receiving the Torah, Moshe was frightened.  If the people are so frail and vulnerable to sin, he wondered, then how could they possibly survive?  If they failed at Mount Sinai after beholding the Revelation, then they would likely fail again in the future, many times over.  Moshe thus asked Gd to show him the secret of Beneh Yisrael’s survival, to give him a reason to feel optimistic and confident about the nation’s future.

Gd responded by bringing Moshe to a stone – which holds the answer to Moshe’s question.

Fire can be extinguished with water.  Even a raging wildfire can be eliminated if enough water is used.  This is true of spirituality, as well.  Even a huge, raging “fire” of spiritual passion and commitment can be extinguished.  At no point are we ever guaranteed that our “fire” will burn forever.  If we are exposed to enough “water” – to enough spiritually hostile forces – for a long enough period of time, we are susceptible to being led astray.  This is why we need to constantly feed our flames of religious commitment through ongoing study, prayer and exposure to positive influences.  However, even if, Heaven forbid, the fire is extinguished, it can be reignited with stones.  A pair of stones never loses its potential to create a fire.  All the water in the world cannot take away this potential.  A huge wildfire covering acres of land can be extinguished, but two small stones, even if they have been submerged in water, can never lose their ability to ignite a flame.

This is the answer to Moshe’s question – and the answer to the questions we so often ask about ourselves, about people we know, and about the current state of the Jewish People.

Moshe wondered how Beneh Yisrael would be able to recover after the spiritual failures that they would inevitably experience.   The answer is that our nation is like a rock.  Even if our flames of spirituality are doused, our potential remains.  Gd has assured our ability to reignite the flames.  Both as individuals and collectively as a nation, we will go through periods of decline and failure.  But no process of decline and no failure could ever take away our potential for recovery and for greatness.  Just as Beneh Yisrael climbed out of the 49th level of impurity after leaving Egypt, we are capable of ascending from the abyss, no matter how far we have fallen.

This is one reason why Pesach must be observed during the springtime, when the trees are blossoming and the fields begin producing grain.  A tiny seed is placed in the ground, and immediately begins disintegrating.  To the uninformed onlooker, there is no reason to believe anything will emerge from this tiny substance sitting in dirt.  But many months later, with the advent of spring, we look around and marvel at the beautiful blossoms and luscious vegetation produced by a disintegrating seed.  This tiny “mashehu” has grown into something magnificent and grand – and this is one of the most important messages of Pesach.  Even a “mashehu” has the potential for greatness.  We can never write off ourselves or anybody else.  Nobody is less than a “mashehu.”  No matter how small we think we are, we are laden with potential that is waiting to be actualized.

The Wicked Son at the Seder

This is a vital message for all areas in life, not the least of which being education.

In the Haggadah we read about the four kinds of children whom the Torah foresees parents sitting with on the night of Pesach, and how the Torah wants us to respond to each.  One of these sons is the rasha – the evil child. 

The Torah is not unrealistic.  It anticipates the eventuality of children rebelling against their parents and choosing a different path.  And it instructs us to include even these children at our seder.  They are given a seat at the table just like the hacham, the wise son.  We need all our children at the seder, because we believe in the potential of each and every one of them.  Especially on Pesach, we do not write off anybody.  If Gd believed in our ancestors in Egypt, then we are to believe in everybody, even the rasha.  The inclusion of the rasha at the sederis consistent with one of the most important themes of Pesach – the belief in the potential of every person to shine and excel, regardless of his or her current standing.

Shamor et hodesh ha’aviv.”  We are commanded to forever associate the celebration of the Exodus with the remarkable phenomenon of spring, with the miracle of vegetation emerging from a tiny seed.  Pesach is the celebration of potential.  We celebrate the fact that we are each capable of growing and achieving, irrespective of the past or present.  Even if we are currently just a tiny seed, we can produce something spectacular.  Even if our “fire” of spiritual fervor has been completely extinguished, we have the “stones” with which to reignite it.

Spring, the season of renewal after the cold, dreary winter, symbolizes our potential for renewal.  This should encourage and motivate us to “spring forward” rather than be held back by our emotional baggage and memories of past failures.  We are all capable of leaving our own personal “Egypts,” the habits and behaviors to which we are currently “enslaved.”  Let us move forward with our heads held up high, with joy and confidence, trusting in the enormous potential laden within the “seed” planted in the soul of each and every one of us, a seed which, when properly nurtured and cared for, can produce beautiful lives of meaning, joy and self-fulfillment.