by Rabbi David Zaslow
There is an organic flow between all of the Jewish holidays that mirrors the cycles in nature. In the Creation story, we learn that “there was evening and there was morning, the first day” (Gen. 1:5). Jews continue to mark the beginning of the day at sunset—evening—and not at midnight as most of the world does. Just as the calendar begins each day in the evening, so the New Year begins in the “evening of the seasons,” autumn with the celebration of Rosh Hashannah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Six months later in the “morning of the seasons,” the spring, Jews celebrate the festivals of Purim and Passover. Each of these festivals has a direct connection to its season.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression experienced by some people in winter. However, all people are emotionally impacted by the cycle of seasons. We tend to feel more introspective in the autumn, more reclusive in winter, more liberated in spring, and more outgoing in summer. Seasonal effects are made sacred in many religions, especially ones that developed in temperate climates. In most religions, the seasons and sacred holidays are strongly aligned.
The Jewish spiritual system of holy days and festivals is organic— each part arises from a particular season, and each part is connected to the year as a whole. As an individual enters into the spring season of vitality and liberation, the intensely self-reflective work of Yom Kippur would not be appropriate, just as remembering our liberation at the Passover seder wouldn’t be organic in September.
In 1995 when I was ordained, my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi invited me to assist him at a multi-day retreat he was doing in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. I remember getting on the plane in Oregon in early September when autumn was in the air. The sense of nature falling back upon itself was imminent, and along with that came the biological sense that it was time to do the self-reflective work Judaism prescribes for that time of year. We all know that when it’s autumn in the United States, it’s springtime south of the equator, so when I got off the plane the feeling in the air was that of springtime liberation. It was a startling contrast; in a fifteen-hour plane ride I traveled six months into the future, from autumn to spring. God’s immanence where I live in the Northwest was calling for introspection whereas God in Brazil at that same moment was calling for freedom and liberation.
Both Judaism and Christianity evolved in temperate climates in the northern hemisphere, so it’s only natural that both Passover and Easter would occur during springtime. So, I was in Rio de Janeiro in September but the feeling was of Passover and Easter. Both religions there have lost their organic, seasonal mooring by conforming to the historical times to celebrate each holiday in the northern hemisphere. On Sunday morning of the gathering in Rio, Reb Zalman challenged several dozen rabbis and spiritual leaders from Jewish communities throughout South America to consider celebrating the Jewish holidays at a time of the year that was authentic and natural to where they were living. In other words, they would celebrate Passover in September and Yom Kippur in April.
This would be comparable to Christians south of the equator celebrating Christmas in June and Easter in September. Reb Zalman humorously told the group, “I have an opinion but I don’t live here so I don’t get a vote. Take one hundred years or so before you make a decision, but it’s a worthy discussion to have.” People laughed, but a serious discussion really did begin after that gathering. There is a feeling in every season, and our holidays—and our emotions—are intimately linked to the effect of the season.
From Reimagining Exodus: A Freedom Story by Rabbi David Zaslow. Paraclete Press, 2017.
Featured Photo: “Spring Challenges the Snow,” JHD, via Instagram
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