One of the dirty little secrets about the Jewish calendar is that many of the holidays have agricultural subtexts, which over time have been muted or lost completely under the historical and religious themes that were layered on top of them.
Two of these holidays, Sukkot and Shavuot, have maintained a relatively transparent relationship to their earthy roots. But finding the natural themes of Passover takes a bit more digging.
The first step is to forget about Moses — for now, anyway — and recall that Passover, also known as Chag HaAviv (holiday of spring), is one of the Torah’s three mandated pilgrimage festivals. It is inextricably linked to the beginning of the barley harvest in Israel.
Leviticus 23:10-11 describes the omer (sheaf) offering of barley (the first grain to ripen in the spring) that took place in the Temple on the second day of Passover: “When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.”
Contemporary Jews are, of course, forbidden to bring sheaves of barley, which is chametz, to our seder tables. Still, if one is willing to look, signs of spring and nature’s rejuvenation abound throughout Passover.
This is especially true of the seder plate. The roasted lamb bone (zeroa), which commemorates lamb sacrifices made at the Temple, is taken from one of spring’s most iconic babies. The green vegetable (karpas) sitting next to it that gets dipped in saltwater is a symbol of the first sprouts that peek out of the ground in early spring. The roasted egg (beitzah) recalls the sacrifices made at the Temple and spring’s fertility and rebirth.
Even before Passover begins, the act of removing chametz from our homes offers other opportunities to connect to the natural world. Removing chametz can remind us to get rid of excess “stuff” clogging up our lives and send bad habits packing.
It also offers a great opportunity to plan ahead in order to avoid the all-too-common overuse of disposable dishware during Passover. As you clean out your kitchen cabinets, stock them with lightweight, recycled dishes and cutlery that store easily and can be reused year after year.
During Passover, Jews are challenged to remember the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom, and feel as if they went through it themselves. But for those willing to dig even further, the story of Passover is not simply historical. It is rooted to the land, the giddy joys of spring, and to the reminder that after every period of dormancy and every experience of suffering, new life awaits just under the soil.
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