Tonight, and this weekend, are Purim, a joyful Jewish holiday celebrating Queen Esther’s cunning, bravery, and willingness to save her people. Many Jews will celebrate in raucous fashion, with drinking and noise makers, with the reading of the Book of Esther, with costumes and satire.
Holidays or Holy Days – are days selected to pull the sacred out of the mundane – to call forth special meaning from among the passing moments of time.
Jews engage sacred time every Friday evening through Saturday evening with Shabbat (the Sabbath.) And each Jewish holiday is an additional opportunity to do just the same – enter another realm of meaning by setting aside the cares of this world for awhile, daring to live in Divine time and to see the world through spiritual eyes.
Blending Scripture & Nature
Attuning to the inherent rhythms of nature can reconnect us to our place in the order of being and be a powerful tool for personal and spiritual growth. Jewish tradition offers ample opportunity for us to re-root ourselves in nature through celebrations that blend biblical events with agricultural cycles, seasons, and phases of the moon.
The ancient Jews marked the seasons with festivals that reinforced and celebrated their central myths, conjoining the meaning of significant religious events with the agricultural calendar. In Jewish holy day celebration, the seasons provide a rich context for spiritual reflection, melding the deeper meaning of the mythic event with the inherent existential meaning of the natural cycle.
For example, Hanukah and its emphasis on increasing light at the time of the winter solstice; Passover’s themes of liberation and new life during the arrival of spring; or Sukkot’s emphasis on the bounty of nature, hospitality, and sharing at the time of the autumn harvest. Each Jewish holiday is aligned to emphasize the intrinsic metaphors of each of the seasons.
Following the rhythm of the Jewish holidays through the seasons offers a way of attuning to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world, thereby helping us recognize the interconnectedness of reality and our place in the world.
At start of the twenty-first century, most of us are no longer aware or even sensitive to the seasonal timing of these festivals and their natural meaning. The festivals remain, but gone is the direct sense of participation in the cyclic energies of the earth. This sense of participation in nature must be restored.
The recovery of the nature-based aspects of the festivals is more than a symbolic gesture. Nature-based themes and reflections can be meaningful ways of reminding ourselves not merely of the rhythms of agriculture and the seasons, but also the rhythms of life. Drawing out the natural significance of the Biblical festivals enhances both their mythic meaning as well as their natural beauty.
The Jewish Mythic Cycle
Today’s Judaism places different emphasis on holidays than did ancient Jews. The traditional-theological cycle of Jewish sacred time focuses on Pesach – our liberation from slavery, to Shavuot – the ongoing revelation of meaning, purpose, and identity at Sinai, where our now freed ancestors bound themselves to the ways of God and goodness, and Sukkot – the celebration of the harvest and hospitality – taking joy in the fruits of our commitments and spiritual lives.
Today, most Jews view Rosh Hashanah and high holy days as primary in the Jewish calendar. Additionally, Hanukkah has taken on significance, particularly within North America. Today’s Jews tend to engage Pesach, the high holidays, and Hanukkah as the central celebrations.
Many of the Jewish holidays are celebrations of the mythic cycle of events in the Hebrew scriptures. Others are celebrations of the fact that some power or peoples tried to kill all the Jews, and failed – so let’s eat!
On a more serious note, I think something of the essence of being Jewish is captured in celebrating the holidays. One gets a feel for Judaism, a chance to sample traditional foods, and a powerful opportunity to enter into a deeper sense of Jewish identity.
Jewish Holidays Through the Seasons
In the heart of winter, many contemplate simplicity and rest. It is an occasion to reflect and relax in nature’s stillness. It’s an inward, slow time. It’s a time to ponder preparations and plans for the year just starting. We listen to what speaks in the silence.
The Jewish holiday of the season is Tu Bishvat – a celebration of the first stirring of the sap in the trees, creation from the primal darkness, and the soon emergence of new life. In the tradition, the holiday is called the New Year of the Trees. The seder for this holiday takes us through the four seasons and highlights the existential meaning of each, while also celebrating the fruit of trees and the abundance of the earth.
Winter fades and we are liberated from its icy restrictions. Nature stirs with awakening energy. As farmers begin prepping the soil for planting, so we too till the soil of our own lives. What restrictions need we shed? What habits, excess, and hindrances need we leave behind? As we shake off winter, we meditate on the new life emerging, on renewing health, and on questions of balance and freedom.
Two holidays mark this season – Purim and Pesach (Passover). Purim celebrates Jewish survival and Jewish fertility – the story of Queen Esther is rich with the symbolism of life’s vitality, fertility, and sexuality, appropriate themes for the start of spring. Pesach is the festival of freedom from slavery of all kinds – what better time to celebrate liberation as we throw off winter’s limitations.
Early summer marks the start of the bright, warmer half of the year. It’s time to celebrate nature’s vitality. Fertility is also a prominent theme this time of year – the beauty and sensual regenerative power of life and nature is abundant now. As nature blooms around us, it’s a fantastic time to ask ourselves how we use our creativity, where we expend our vitality, and where our commitments reside.
In this season we celebrate Shavuot – a holiday commemorating the flowering of the liberated Jewish people, the giving of Torah, and the acceptance of the Covenant. As we watch the flowers unfold, we take time to listen to nature, and in it, hear the quiet whisper of the Divine that speaks to human reason concerning our commitments and values.
Elul – A Season of First Fruits
Summer is at its fullness and the earth is alive in lush splendor, ripening fruit and crops tall and robust. Initial preparation for the coming harvest is underway and it’s an ideal time to appreciate nature’s abundance and to celebrate the remaining days of summer with friends and family as the season wanes.
Usually, by early to mid August, the Jewish calendar turns to the month of Elul – a month of preparation and reflection. A month of awakening. A month of moral accounting. Sort of the Jewish version of Lent.
In the spirit of Jewish innovation – I’m calling for a new Jewish holiday – and have been celebrating it for a few years now – one that captures the ancient practices of celebrating first fruits– Bikkurim/First Fruits is a personal innovation, a holiday that encourages us to reflect on nature’s abundance, it’s ability to sustain us, and our need to care for the ecosystem. I do a First Fruits seder every middle of August.
Time to participate in the harvest – the culmination of the agricultural year and the spiritual year –by engaging in celebrations of reflection, assessment, turning (Teshuvah), hospitality, sharing, and giving thanks.
The Harvest Season contains the central Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish spiritual New Year and the start of a ten-day period of intense reflection and repentance. This period of “High Holidays” is a time of turning, just as the leaves have begun to turn. Our turning, or Teshuvah, culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement – a day to recall the harmony and balance intended for our lives and the world.
Sukkot follows Yom Kippur – a holiday of nature, of hospitality, and of counting blessings. We dwell in makeshift, outdoor structures and reflect on what fruit our lives have produced and benefited from.
By the end of October, in most of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s apparent that the growing season is over and that winter is soon to be upon us. This is a natural time to ponder death, recall our ancestors and deceased relatives and friends, and giving gratitude for the harvest of nature now completed. Again, I’ve suggested the celebration of an additional holiday, one to coincide with Halloween. I call this holiday, T’Nuvah, derived from the Hebrew word for harvest – and use the time to engage in Yitzchor – remembering our beloved dead.
December & The Winter Solstice
Celebrate the return of the light and lengthening days in the midst of darkness and cold. Mark the season with gatherings of light, love, community, and joy.
Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday of light in the midst of darkness, of hope in severe times, and of dedication to ideals that reflect the light of reason, Divinity, and our better nature. It’s a time to remember the struggles of those who fought to keep Judaism alive. It’s a time to reflect on the meaning and content of dedication.
Do you have a favorite Jewish holiday? One that speaks to you more than the others? Leave a comment and let us know.