Judaism: Looking for Light
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu SafranThe writer is an educator, author and lecturer. His most recent book is...
As we enjoy the light of the summer sun, basking in its delightful warmth, it is possible to ask, “Have we gotten our calendar all wrong? Are our long, summer vacations misplaced? Shouldn’t we refresh and relax more during those cold, hard months of winter?”
After all, who needs rest and relaxation during the summer? The streets fairly vibrate with energy.
And what does this have to do with the Jewish liturgical year?
Our point of departure is the verse in parshat Balak, “And the Lord opened the mouth of the aton [she donkey], and it said to Balaam, What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times [shalosh regalim]?” The p’shat of the verse is simple. The aton turned away three times because an Angel of the Lord appeared before her. But the deeper meaning is in the understanding that the aton was, in fact, conveying a powerful truth to Balaam, “Do you think you can destroy a people observing Shalosh Regalim?”
Rashi quotes the Midrash to make the connection between shalosh regalim and the three major Jewish festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. The Midrash teaches that, for the Jews, the merits of observing the three festivals and their mitzvoth bring protection from Balaam’s curses.
Great joy indeed, when the curses of Balaam are instead transformed into praise. But it seems strange, perhaps even a bit off-kilter, to consider that all three of the great regalim take place during the Spring and Summer months.
Pesach, in particular, is commanded by Torah to take place during Chodesh HaAviv, in the springtime. Pesach, which in almost all ways anchors the liturgical year, precedes Shavuot by fifty days. So the summer begins. And then, as the summer concludes, but with days still long and delightful, we enter Yamim Noraim followed immediately after by Sukkot.
Only then, with the incredible festivals of the Jewish year receding in memory do we leave the summer and enter the long Fall and Winter months with their dearth of holidays!
Wouldn’t it have made more sense to spread our holiday celebrations more evenly throughout the year, allowing us a more paced opportunity to observe these great festivals? It is almost unseemly to crowd them into seasons already bursting with light and warmth while leaving the colder, darker months without the illumination of our worship.
Maharal views this same lack of balance in the Jewish year but he brings to it a very different perspective. Maharal divides the calendar into two halves – half, from Pesach to Sukkot (that is, the Spring and the Summer) and half, the Fall and Winter months. Unlike the secular sun worshippers, he sees that first half as having the force of spiritual light as its primary power. Because of this great, spiritual force it is during this time that one is more able to tap into his spiritual energy. For Maharal, this explains why our great festivals and Holy Days fall during this half of the year.
For him, the Fall and Winter are a time of spiritual darkness. Like the very flowers of the field, our spirits remain more dormant during these months, awaiting the returning warmth of the Spring in order to blossom again.
Maharal goes so far as to place Winter “outside the realm of time” because it is barren, offering no growth – either agriculturally or spiritually. Being barren, it cannot be fully part of any true and “real existence.” It lacks both physical and spiritual value.
Consider the truth of Maharal’s perspective; those cold, harsh winter days. When even the hours of weak daylight are shortened. When tree limbs are bare of leaves and lawns are brown and hard. Rather than the symphony of the Spring and Summer, when the chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects harmonize in nature, Winter exists in cold silence.
The cold darkness. It sends us to difficult psychological places.
It is no accident that light is associated with joy, with inspiration, with knowledge and spirit. The darkness makes large our anxieties, our fears and insecurities. It is a time when death seems closer to us and joy farther from our grasp.
Celebrations that seem natural in the warmth of the sun seem impossible in the cold of winter. How winter makes us long for the coming Spring…
R’ Tzadok writes in agreement with Maharal. He notes that all holidays mentioned in Torah take place during spring and summer months because it is only then that the potential for profound spiritual growth exists. The intense power of the spiritual light is so strong during that time. He notes that the Torah set up the calendar’s holidays during the Spring and Summer because to have such festivals during the winter would be counterproductive. It would be misguided to anticipate real growth during the Winter.
To attempt real spiritual growth in the Winter is difficult. It is as promising as planting flowers in the snow pack in December. There will be no bloom. Not until Spring and Summer, when God provides for all growth.
How can we hold out for spiritual nourishment during the long, harsh Winter? Perhaps, we could not and that is the reason that Chazal instituted the two additional holidays of Chanukah and Purim, to sustain our spirituality through the thickest of winters.
After all, both these holidays focus on light. Chanukah, most obviously with the miracle of maintaining the light of the Temple. That it occurs so close to the Winter solstice makes it like a small beacon, letting us know that we shall endure through the darkest and shortest day of the Winter. And Purim, lay’hudim haysa orah – and for the Jews there was light – is the light that tells us that our long wait for that deep spiritual nourishment is almost over.