The Exodus and the Awakening of Nature

:שָׁמוֹר אֶת חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב וְעָשִׂיתָ פֶּסַח לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב הוֹצִיאֲךָ ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מִמִּצְרַיִם לָיְלָה
:וְזָבַחְתָּ פֶּסַח לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ צֹאן וּבָקָר בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם
(דברים טז, א-ב)

Keep the month of spring, and make the Passover offering to the Lord, your God; for in the month of spring, the Lord, your God, brought you out of Egypt at night. You shall slaughter the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, your God, [of the] flock and [the festival sacrifices of the] cattle, in the place that the Lord will choose to establish His Name therein.  (Devarim 16:1–2)

The Sages (Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah 21a; Sanhedrin 13b) brought this passage as a proof-text when they determined that we must celebrate Passover in the spring season: “Keep the month of spring – keep the spring of the yearly cycle [the vernal equinox] in the month of Nissan.” That decision authorized the creation of the system of laws regulating leap years.

Is There a Deeper Reason We Must Celebrate Passover in the Spring?

Why did the Torah deem it important that Passover should be celebrated at this particular time of the year? Was it simply a matter of accurately preserving the date of the historical Exodus, or does this law anticipate entry into the Land?

We can answer these questions by examining the Passover festival in its various historical contexts. The Torah usually mentions the Passover festival (hag ha-Pesah) and the Matzot festival (hag ha-Matzot) together with the laws regarding the births of sheep, goats, and cattle:

Every firstborn male that is born of your cattle or of your flock you shall sanctify to the Lord, your God. You shall neither work with the firstborn of your ox, nor shear the firstborn of your flock. You shall eat it before the Lord, your God, year by year, in the place the Lord chooses – you and your household. (Devarim 15:19–20)

Although the two topics seem unrelated at first, their repeated juxtaposition throughout the Torah points to their being linked in some way. Passover and the consecration of the firstborn do share a common element: both of these commandments are observed in the spring season. The flocks of sheep and goats see their last births in late winter, and the firstborn animals become ready for consecration in the spring. The Passover festival is celebrated concurrently with these pastoral events – in the month of spring. The Torah links Passover to the birthing season, thus bringing the primeval connection between humans and nature into sharp focus.

Passover’s ties to the spring season are manifold, and they go far beyond the matter of the firstborn. Passover is connected to the seasonal cycle of rebirth that begins with spring in the Land of Israel. The first barley is harvested in those weeks and it is brought to the Temple as the omer offering on the day after the Passover sacrifice. Just as the shepherd is obliged to consecrate the firstborn of his flocks, so too the farmer must offer up the first of his grain. [The Hebrew word aviv, “spring,” actually bears two different meanings, each of which relates to the season’s signs of renewal. In the agricultural context, aviv refers to a “hollow stalk,” meaning that seeds of grain are only beginning to ripen. In its wider and still current sense, aviv refers to the entire spring season of the year. The Torah uses both meanings: The flax and the barley have been broken, for the barley is in the ear, aviv, and the flax is in the stalk (Shemot 9:31), and in the second sense: Keep the month of spring (Devarim 16:1).]

Passover, Spring, and World Renewal

In those early days of spring, all of nature awakens to new life. Many of the animals give birth; the trees are rejuvenated and their blossoms are harbingers of the fruit soon to come. Human beings, even those living in our modern age, open their windows to view the bounty of nature renewed. As the outer scenery undergoes its transformations, they are echoed in the human heart, which is in complete harmony with the joy of nature’s rebirth.

No season could be more appropriate for the celebration of Passover, the festival that marks the nation’s birth.

R. Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook bound the two elements together in one adage: “The Exodus from Egypt is the springtime of the entire world.” [Maggid Yereihim] R. Kook declares that Israel’s escape from slavery to freedom led to the flowering of the whole world. The birth of the People Israel exercised a cosmic influence on all of humanity; it is also the cosmic cause of nature’s spring rebirth.

Spring RenewalI would like to suggest a reversed way of connecting together the various aspects of the holiday. The Exodus from Egypt took place in the spring precisely because of the feelings of rebirth associated with that season. Those feelings are universal; they predate the Exodus and are shared by every living being on the face of the earth. They touch the human soul in the simplest and most natural way.

The national dimension is a more complicated stratum resting upon those universal human feelings, which each individual experiences in a different way, depending on his temperament. When people commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, they take the primeval emotions elicited by nature and shape them into nationally-oriented insights concerning our liberation as a people. The individual feels connected to the nation’s birth through the natural emotions elicited by the rebirth of the natural world.

I believe that this idea has broader application. Universal feelings that are experienced in a straightforward way form the natural foundations for more particularistic aspects of awareness, be they individual or national. Our link to the historical, national, and Torah-oriented memory always arises from an experiential starting point that is apprehended in a primordial and natural fashion.

We are unable to grasp the full significance of the Exodus from Egypt without first appreciating the broader context of nature’s awakening in the days of Nissan: “Meadows are clothed with flocks, and valleys are covered with corn; they shout for joy, they even sing.” (Tehillim 65:14)

This D’var Torah was originally published in Rav Bigman’s The Fire and the Cloud (Gefen Publishing, 2011, www.gefenpublishing.com), and appears here with permission.

Rav David Bigman
Rav David Bigman, a member of Beit Hillel, is Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa, having previously served as Rosh Yeshiva in Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim, and as Rabbi of Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa. He was one of the founders of Midreshet HaBanot b’Ein Hanatz”iv. He is active in issues pertaining to society and halacha, as well as dialogue between secular and religious Israelis.
 

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