The period between Passover and Shavuot has always been a special time in the Jewish calendar. It is a time of anticipation as the Jewish people move from redemption to deliverance, from emancipation from Egyptian slavery to the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Jewish tradition teaches us to prepare ourselves for God’s teachings at this time. It is a time full of mystical meanings and messages as we count each of the seven days that make up each of the seven weeks of this period.
I always enjoy this time of year in Israel because it is a time when I so appreciate the coming together of the Jewish calendar with the Jewish people, the Jewish land and Jewish history. For me, the period starts a little earlier than Passover, with Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, usually occurring in February. While winter snows are still falling in New Jersey, my children sing the traditional song “HaShkediah Porachat,” (“The almond tree is blooming”) and like clockwork, the blossoms of the almond trees begin to bloom each year around this holiday. Spring has sprung. The hillsides of Israel are green, dotted with bright red poppies and budding trees.
About a month later the whole country celebrates Purim, dressing up in costumes, traveling to deliver and exchange baskets of food before gathering for a festive meal. I love how the whole country celebrates this pageant – teachers, store clerks, receptionists are all dressed up wishing everyone “chag sameach,” (“happy holiday”). I can not help but be reminded of Halloween in the States and how much I prefer being surrounded by those celebrating Purim with me although the traditions may be similar.
When Purim concludes, preparations for Passover begin. Houses, offices, schools, stores and cars are cleaned as the whole nation begins spring cleaning anticipating the impeding arrival of the Festival of Spring. Cleaning products go on sale in the supermarkets, as the shelves are covered and only kosher-for-Passover food is made available. Israeli schools are off a week previous to Passover in eager preparation and on the day of the seder all of Israel is in a rush preparing the meal or traveling to their destination. Once all the cleaning is finished, the morning before the seder, campfires are lit in vacant lots where neighborhood families come to burn their chametz in a spontaneous community event. On the eve of the seder, just as each Jewish household in ancient Egypt acted in unison to prevent the slaying of their first born son, each house in modern Israel comes together and retells the story of how our nation was born.
Passover is also an agricultural holiday. It ends the rainy season and, as reflected in the prayers Jews say each day that are adjusted for the seasons of the year, it is rare that rain falls in Israel anytime between Passover in the Spring and Simchat Torah in the Fall. These holidays measure time and the points they mark have very significant meanings even today for the residents of Israel. During the intermediate days of Passover, the people of Israel reconnect with their land taking trips and hikes throughout the counry.
As if to shock us into reality, the week immediately following Passover brings with it Yom HaShoah . In a country founded by many who fled Europe, who survived the Holocaust and who fought the Nazis, I find it difficult to describe the meaning of this day in this country. It is something that must be experienced. A siren sounds. The entire country stops, stands silent and remembers both the victims of the Nazi Holocaust and those who fell fighting in the Resistance. The calendar connects me to the Jewish people, land, history and religion in a very different way from week to week as my thoughts move from ancient Egypt to Nazi Germany; Poland; Auschwitz; from my people’s history long ago to my family’s experience in the previous generation.
A week later another siren is sounded. Again I stand in silence. This time I remember those who have made the greatest sacrifice so that I may live in a Jewish State. At 8pm, Memorial Day (Yom HaZicharon) ends and Israeli Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut) is launched with Israeli folk dancing and fireworks. Local residents celebrate in the streets of each neighborhood, in each city throughout the country. The following day, barbeques are lit and Israelis have a relaxing day, enjoying well-deserved family fun.
As we continue to count the weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, a sometimes politically charged holiday which celebrates the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 as Israel’s eternal capital. No matter what I may feel about the divisions within this city, I set aside this day to celebrate all that is special in this holy city. When I see fireworks above the Old City’s golden wall, standing among my own people in my own land, I am instantly connected to 5000 years of history surrounding me in time and space, above my head and below my feet; my past, present and future. This connection transcends the political problems of today’s modern city and puts into perspective why I am here.
Rosh Hodesh, the new month, brings with it school-age boys collecting firewood, preparing for the bonfires of Lag B’Omer. Thirty-three of the forty-nine days in our count from Passover to Shavuot are over as we remember Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai who is the taditional author of the Zohar, Judaism’s book of mysticism. His students visited him each year on Lag B’Omer as he hid from the Romans in a cave for thirteen years. This day is still a students’ holiday in Israel and the bonfires typically burn all night. The day also has mystical meanings as it is the anniversary of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai’s death. On this day, many Israelis flock to Mount Meron where he is buried to celebrate his union with heaven. There it is also traditional that boys have their first haircut on the Lag B’Omer after their third birthday, a tradition which many Israelis still follow.
Finally Shavuot is upon us. Our count is over. On the eve of Shavuot in Jerusalem, I have many options to attend different all-night study sessions in keeping with the tradition of a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot when we study all night long in anticipation of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. As the dawn breaks in Jerusalem on Shavuot morning, I leave my neighborhood and walk to the Old City where I will join many others from across the city for a sunrise service at the Western Wall. I meet friends and acquaintances and each year as I see Jerusalem residents converge towards the center of the Jewish world, like tributaries forming streams and rivers, I imagine what it must have been like on the three pilgrimage festivals of Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot in ancient Israel as Jews traveled from all over the country to bring their offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews from all over are coming together, walking towards the Holy of Holies as the sun rises above Jerusalem.
From February to June, from Shvat to Sivan, from Tu B’Shvat to Shavuot, these months carry me through many layers of Jewish history. They transport me to many ages and places where Jews have struggled and celebrated. During this time, I am so appreciative to live in a country whose pulse beats according to a Jewish calendar where I am able to live in a Jewish majority, my people celebrating my holidays, remembering my history in my land.