April 13, 2012
One of the best parts of living inBaltimoreis being able to experience the lovely onset of spring. Those of us fortunate enough to dwell in the Mid-Atlantic area, specifically near theChesapeake Bay, have been blessed this year with an early and long spring season. I know for a fact that crocuses usually bloom in our backyard in the middle of March. This year they were blooming at the end of February. Daffodils, that lovely first flower of spring, concluded their blossoming and are already readying themselves for next season. We literally see the unfolding of nature right before our eyes. Day by day, the lingering affects of winter pass and the spring growth takes hold. By now, even the late blossoming trees are beginning to show their newly green leaves.
Pesach arrived this year right in the middle of our glorious spring. Pesach is best known to us as our festival of freedom, celebrating our redemption from Egyptian bondage. Pesach is also our festival celebrating the onset of spring growth, the end of winter and the renewal of nature. Pesach has another name in the Bible. It is also known as Chag Ha-Aviv, the festival of spring. It is not a coincidence that during Pesach we read the epic ancient love poem, Song of Songs, which says, “For now, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of pruning has come; the song of the turtledove is heard in our land. The green figs form on the fig tree. The vines in blossom give off fragrance.” (SS 2:11-13) While fig trees do not bloom inMaryland as they do inIsrael, we do hear the voice of the turtledove singing in our trees. So tonight we ask the question, “What does the commemoration of Israelite liberation fromEgypt and the onset of spring have in common?” I will do my best to explain over the next few minutes.
The founder of Modern Orthodoxy, the great 19th century German Rabbi Samson Hirsch, eloquently wrote in his commentary on Exodus 13:3-9, God’s admonition to the Israelites to observe the Passover throughout the generations:
“Let the Israelites look around this time of year: it was in the month of Aviv that they went out to freedom. The same God that brings about spring in nature, and calls the seeds, which have lain chained in darkness throughout the winter, up into light and into freedom, it is that very same God who brought about their spring. It is this God who called them up from being chained in the wintry darkness of the Egyptian grave, into light and freedom and the development of the life. But, just like nature, they too are still yet in the month of spring. They have yet to strive for the attainment of maturity and the bearing and ripening of fruit. They have, like green stalks, eagerly and greedily, with fresh enthusiasm to drink up out of the soil of freedom and of belonging to God, all the forces and strength which this soil grants, and use it all to produce fruit, to the attainment of the full maturity which God calls them to reach.” (Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah: Exodus, 165).
To what is Rabbi Hirsch alluding? He is connecting the beginning of spring to the rebirth of Israelite freedom. Yet just as the blossom is not the mature leaf, so did the Israelites need to grow sufficiently to take on the responsibility which God thrust upon us. As it took us forty years of wandering in the Wilderness to reach this point, so does it take us seven weeks, from the second night of Pesach to the onset of Shavuot, to commemorate our receiving the responsibility of Torah. We mark these forty nine days of progression from freedom to responsibility in the counting of the Omer, the growth of the barley harvest in the landof Israel. It takes forty nine days from the time the first shoots of grain appear from the ground until the time when it is ready to be harvested. That is the agricultural basis for the celebration of Shavuot, our Festival of Weeks, which we shall celebrate with Confirmation and rejoicing on May 26 and 27. On Shavuot, we remember God’s giving us the Torah on Mt.Sinai. During these next seven weeks, we spiritually prepare ourselves “to figuratively receive Torah and relieve the experience of Sinai. In this way and through such discipline, we can both celebrate our freedom and realize our potential.” This is why, immediately before the Aleinu in our Maariv service for the next seven weeks, we will add the blessing for the counting of the Omer, which measures the growth of the barley and our progression towards the assumption of responsibility. Freedom without responsibility leads to anarchy. It is only through the acceptance of responsibility, through the guidance of Torah, that we achieve real freedom.
In truth, absolute freedom does not exist. We are limited by our physical abilities and life circumstances from doing what we would like. When we say to a child, “You can grow up to be whatever you would like,” we are speaking facetiously, for even as a child I knew I could never play basketball in the NBA or fly jets off of aircraft carriers. The particularities of my body and the abilities I was granted or not granted at birth, limited my freedom from the moment I was born. The ability to do what we would like in the social sphere is limited by the rights of others to live their lives as well. To live in an ordered society, it is necessary for us to adhere to social norms. We accept this as the price of civilization. The Jew finds true freedom in the acceptance of Torah. It is our task as Jewish human beings to do the very best we can with the abilities that God has given us, to use these talents for the repair of our fractured world, so that someday, through our collective efforts and with God’s help, our distant descendants shall experience the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Messianic Age for which we yearn and pray. Someday, when we reach the end of the counting of the Omer, may we stand again in the presence of God at Sinai, as part of a humanity redeemed by the universal acceptance of Torah and humbled by the acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Only on that day, will we reap the benefits that spring has brought us, for on that incredible day of spring, “Adonai will be one and God’s name will be one.” Would you please join me now in the blessing for the counting of the Omer which we find on page ____.
 JTS Torah Commentary, April 13, 2012