Breitowitz is rabbi of the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, MD. He
received his Rabbinical Ordination and a Doctorate in Talmudic Law from
the Ner Israel Rabbinical College. He is also a Professor of Law at the
University of Maryland.
One of the striking phenomena of
modern Orthodox life is how distant we are from nature. In the ancient
world, both among Jews and among the other nations of the world, people
were very connected and sensitive to the cycles of the sun, moon, and
the stars and the planets. Today, even navigation is no longer done by
the stars, but by machine.
I remember when I was eretz yisrael
and looked up at the sky: thousands and thousands of stars! This is
what our forefathers saw every evening when they looked up at the night
sky. It is easy to forget our natural connection to the world, and how
much we rely on the natural cycles and natural resources Hashem has
given to us. All of our holidays and the cycles of Judaism are based on
the natural cycles of the world.
Of course, Pesach is about yetzias
mitzraim, the exodus from Egypt, and Shavuos celebrates matan torah,
the giving of the Torah. Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres commemorate our
wandering in the desert. But, it is also true that Pesach is the
beginning of the spring when the barley was harvested. Shavuous was
also the time of the harvesting of the wheat, and Sukkos is the
ingathering of the produce and the fruit.
Last year, we had two months of Adar
in the Jewish year. Why do we have Jewish leap years in which we add an
additional month of Adar? Because the Torah says that Pesach must occur
during the spring. So, when Pesach gets a little too early in the solar
calendar, we have to put in an extra month to push Pesach back into its
Why is it so important that Pesach be
in the spring? The gemara says there's an intimate bridge between the
physical structure of the universe and the spiritual universe. What
happens on this earth models the 'spiritual vibe' that God is putting
into the earth at that time. For example, take freedom. That will be
manifested by the fact that the earth itself becomes liberated after a
long cold winter, after it was dormant, to begin with productivity and
growth. Pesach occurs in spring because that's the time of freedom.
We judge the nature of the physical
and spiritual 'vibe' by the season in the land of Israel. When it is
spring there, Hashem puts freedom into the world, and it spreads from
there to places like Australia or South Africa, where it is not spring
at that season. In eretz yisrael, however, it must be springtime during
Pesach, because what happens in nature is a mirror is a reflection of
some deeper spiritual truth.
Shavuous, the time of harvest, is also
the time of the matan torah, giving of the Torah, when we can harvest
the knowledge that Hashem has made available to us. Sukkos is the time
of ingathering; so, too, after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we are
able to internalize that knowledge into our emotions and behavior,
ingathering into ourselves.
This is also true in our prayers. If
you look at our tefillos, you will notice that the zman (time) of our
tefillos are based on various transition points in the day. When the
night turns into the morning, when the sun rises, is when you are
supposed to say the shema. Although the mishna says you can say the
shema as late as three hours into the day, because kings used to get up
late, the best way of praying is when you are moved by the grandeur of
the universe as it switches from night into morning. Mincha is to be
prayed as the sun is setting, and maariv when the stars come out. These
transitions are supposed to inspire us. When we pray in the morning, it
is as the sun rises and inspires us; as the sun sets we have the fear
and trepidation in which we ask God to protect us in time of danger.
When we pray in total darkness, we are affirming our faith in God even
at times of despair and this gives us the courage to persevere even
through the night.
Today, we come into our shul with the
lights on. Shacharis is the same, mincha is the same, maariv is the
same. But if one is truly connected to the earth, one understands that
even the emotional meaning of shacharis is different from that of
mincha, and different from that of maariv. That's why chazal teach us
to pray three times of day, because each tefillah is supposed to elicit
a different view.
The assumption of the Torah is not
that you're going to be a lawyer or a doctor or a CPA. The assumption
of the Torah would be that you would have your farm, your vineyard and
your fig tree, and you would bring bikkurim, first fruits to the Kohen.
That is the picture that the Torah paints. Yet how far we are from
Tu b'Shevat, the new year of the
trees, is a holiday that helps us focus on the natural world. In
Israel, it is the recognized time when the sap begins running in the
trees, the first early mark of the coming of spring. We can use this
physical change as a spiritual time to focus on the earth and the
importance of protecting it.
This year on Tu b'Shevat, let's take a
few moments to appreciate our connections to the physical world, to
appreciate Hashem's marvelous creation, and to protect the natural
resources Hashem has granted us.
This article is printed as part of the Tu b'Shevat Learning Campaign,
sponsored by Canfei Nesharim, an organization that is educating the
Orthodox community about the importance of protecting the environment.
For more information, visit