Jews are a people tied to the land. While we have a special and unique relationship with the Land of Israel, it is the Earth in general that leads the Jewish year cycle.
The holiday cycle of the Israelites is tied to the harvest seasons. Pesah happens in the first month of the year and is tied in this week’s torah portion to the Spring, causing the leap-month calendar that we know today. Sukkot celebrates the bounty of the fall in like manner.
We have lost something from our ancient connection to the land, and I believe that it is critical for the future of Judaism that we regain it. There is a reason that Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav prayed among the trees and why so many people feel connected to the Source of All Blessing while embraced by the natural environment. That connection, in Israel or abroad, is just as important to us today as it was to the Israelites wandering in the wilderness.
I encourage you to explore the wild of the outdoors. It is where I most readily encounter the divine and where I feel most able to offer thanks for the blessings of the world.
What is the connection between the Land of Israel, the natural cycle, and Jewish practice? Especially for Jews living outside the land of Israel, is this still important?
Classical sources in both the Written and Oral Traditions unambiguously state that the ideal place for Jews to reside is the land of Israel. If one lives elsewhere, he is considered to be in the Diaspora, essentially in exile. The holiness of the land of Israel, in contrast to all other lands, is considered inviolate and eternal. The Jewish concept of holiness is a function of closeness to God, with HaShem constituting the archetype of holiness. Consequently, the more holy the land upon which one lives, the closer to God he finds himself. While the absence of the Jerusalem Temple has rendered moot a great many of the Tora’s Commandments, there is a significant number of Mitzvot that can only be performed in the land of Israel, independent of the Temple. If a Jew wishes to maximize his opportunities to fulfill such Mitzvot—it is assumed that the more Mitzvot one positions oneself to perform, the more in line such an individual is with God’s Will and the lifestyle that the Tora prescribes—living in the land of Israel must be at the very least a powerful aspiration, e.g., “LeShana HaBa’a BeYerushalayim” (Next year in Jerusalem) that is proclaimed every six months at the Pesach Seder and then at the conclusion of Yom HaKippurim, if not an actual goal to be realized as soon as possible.
Although Jews have lived in the Diaspora for millennia, that does not change the focal point that the land of Israel provides for Jewish identity as well as religious practice. Hebrew, the most Jewish of all languages, ancient and modern, is the official language of the State of Israel. The fact that Jews all over the world orient themselves during prayer towards the Temple Mount provides a stark demonstration of where the single Jewish center is located. The daily Jewish liturgy contains numerous references to the eventual ingathering of the exiles, the restoration of a judicial system in accordance with Jewish law and the rebuilding of the Temple. The Jewish festivals follow the pattern of harvests that take place in Israel—Pesach marks the early barley harvest, Shavuot the later wheat harvest, and Sukkot the fall harvest—regardless of the climatic conditions that someone may be experiencing during those times anywhere else in the world. Prayers for Dew in the spring and Rain in the fall as well as additions and/or changes to the Silent Devotion also reflect Israel’s patterns of rainfall over the course of the year. The period of three weeks, beginning with the 17th of Tammuz and culminating with Tisha B’Av are the most mournful and depressing period of the entire Jewish year, marking the days that led up to the eventual destructions of the two Jerusalem Temples. Other fast days during the year, i.e., the 3rd of Tishrei and the 10th of Tevet also serve as reminders of the Temple sieges and devastations. Even commemorations and celebrations such as Yom HaZikaron, Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim are determined by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, who consistently look to avoid creating situations where people might be led to drive on Shabbat, e.g., if the 5th of Iyar occurs on a Friday, the celebration might be postponed to the following Sunday. Despite the fact that these days are not national holidays in the Diaspora, communities outside of Israel are usually careful to follow the lead of Israel for determining on which days the celebrations should take place.
These many commemorations and symbols serve as constant reminders of the centrality of the land of Israel, its climate and natural cycles, to Jews all over the world, whether or not they currently reside in Israel proper.
In looking to understand the connection between the Land of Israel, the natural cycle, and Jewish practice we must plunge deeply into the world of Jewish imagination and spiritual life to examine how our Jewish holidays help us translate our values into reality.
The Land of Israel has been at the heart of Jewish imagination, thought, spiritual teaching, and Jewish yearning since the dawn of our history.It has been central to our visioning even though the Diaspora has been a part of Jewish life and destiny for thousands of years.Certainly, our prophets taught us that God is everywhere. In the words of the prophet Malakhi (1:5): "Great is the Holy One beyond the borders of Israel”.Yet, Israel has always been, and still remains, special to us.Every Passover Seder around the world ends with the words: Next Year in Jerusalem.
The Torah expresses the uniqueness of Israel by assigning us special mitzvoth hateluyot ba'Aretz, special commandments that are to be fulfilled specifically in the Land of Israel.And, in regard to Israel, we read in the book of Deuteronomy (11:12): “It is a land which the Holy One your God looks after, on which the Holy One your God always keeps an eye, from beginning to year’s end”.
Indeed, the values associated with our three Pilgrim Festivals are intrinsically tied to the seasons of the year as they occur in nature in Israel.Thus, Passover, the holiday marking the Exodus from slavery to freedom is also called “Hag HaAviv”– the Spring Holiday; Shavuot, the holiday associated with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is also called “Hag HaBikurim”– the Holiday of the First Fruits; and Sukkot, the holiday associated with God’s loving protection and guidance is also called “Hag HaAsif”– the Holiday of the Ingathering of the Crops from the fields.Each of these holidays has at its base an agricultural theme associated with the Land of Israel, which our Sages coupled with historical and theological themes and their associated values.
Thus, throughout the ages, as Jews, we continued to place an awareness of Israel at the center of our spiritual lives and ritual observances.
Many of our Sages considered aliyah (the spiritual decision to live in Israel) to be a mitzvah.Others simply encouraged us to keep aliyahin mind as a religious aspiration.Yet, of necessity or by choice, some of our people live, and have lived throughout the centuries of our history, outside of the Land of Israel.
During the period of the Babylonian exile, the prophet Jeremiah (29:4-7) told our people in Babylon that it was God’s will that they settle into their new homes and build their lives as integral parts of their new environment.But, he also made a point of reiterating his belief that we would one day return to the Land and rebuild our lives there (Jeremiah 32:9-15).
Today, we are blessed to be living in a time when half of the Jewish people in the world reside in the modern State of Israel.One of the most important ways for us to remain connected to one another as Jews no matter where we live is for us to retain the observance of the Jewish holidays - and especially those festivals that tie us to the reality of Israel's seasons. As we experience a different physical reality in the Diaspora, these holidays remind us not only of our brothers and sisters who live in Israel and of our connection to them, but also of the fact that no matter where our people have lived in the past, Israel was always at the center of their spiritual consciousness.
Israel is a work in progress.Today, more than ever, the vitality of Israel as our spiritual center depends upon our ability to "feel" the reality of Israel even from afar – to appreciate the gift and the blessing of Israel as she is today – and to imagine what Israel might yet become as we continue to be a part of her future.Celebrating holidays that are tied to the seasons as they are experienced in Israel, powerfully connects us to our past, anchors us to our present, and speaks to our future as one people dedicated, through our Torah and ideals, values and beliefs, to a better world for all.
The natural cycle of seasons and moons is closely related to the cycles of Jewish practice. Of that there is little doubt, if any. Passover is the Spring festival, one of the myriad celebrated by every culture. Shavuot is the Festival of First Fruits - a celebration of the beginning of a bountiful year. And, of course, Sukkot is the harvest festival. So what makes them so distinctly Jewish? They are Jewish because our teachers and our Sages and our Biblical forebears applied the central lesson and event of Jewish history - the Exodus and all its ramifications - into the holiday. By infusing the Festivals with meaning way above and beyond their simple agricultural significance, the Festivals become laden with layers of holiness and Jewish lessons that are lived (and eaten!).
There are Jewish cycles that have very limited relevancy today. Rosh Chodesh, the pronouncement of the appearance of the New Moon so that the dates of the Festivals could be determined and the special sacrifices at each New Moon could be offered is one such event. In former eras, the witnesses would testify that they saw the New Moon and runners would be sent out announcing the Rosh Chodesh. It was a fine system but, let's face it, with computers today, I could tell you not only when the Rosh Chodesh will be in 10,000 years, but I can also tell you the precise time it will happen at a specific latitude. In addition to this, the ancients did not understand the the moon, how it stayed up in space and their understanding of gravity and physics was severely limited. We have sent people to the moon; it holds scientific curiosity and is an amazing story of planetary development but it isn't the mysterious place our Sages thought it to be.
So why keep observing Rosh Chodesh? Many Jews have turned Rosh Chodesh into a celebration of the evolving nature of nature. Some have made it a metaphor for the potential of birth. Many women's groups have gravitated toward its symbolism of menstruation, etc. It has taken on new meaning since the appearance of the moon to announce the new month is unnecessary.
There are other cycles of nature that occur in the Land of Israel which are observed by one degree or another by many Israelis. There is age of fruit which falls from the tree which can not be used except after a set period of seasons. There are the water festivals which are celebrated largely in name only, and so forth.
Inside Israel there is a desire to live a Jewish life and so the festivals of the Jews are naturally celebrated there. But even in Israel, the agricultural aspects of these celebrations are overshadowed by the spiritual and religious aspects attached to them. The same process that attached the Exodus to the Springtime still happens.
Does that mean that they are meaningless rituals? The cynic would say that they are meaningless. But usually the cynic is cynical because something's meaning is not 'original' or 'pure.' It has been altered and bears little resemblance to the original celebration. My answer is that babies bear little resemblence to the adult version of themselves. Do we discard the adult once the baby grows out of its former self? Of course not. The reality is that by layering the natural cycles of life with religious meaning, Jews have created an rich and vibrant environment to add meaning to everyday events.
I am a science geek at heart. Physics is my passion. Astronomy is a calling. I know lots about the moon. Having said that, though, knowing that there is a spiritual side to Rosh Chodesh does not mean I am worshipping the moon nor am I ascribing to it any magical qualities. I can still utilize its symbolism to create meaning which adds to my life's spiritual richness. That can happen in the Land of Israel or outside of it. All it takes is an open mind willing to hear the poetry.
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