Happy 2024! I hope this secular year dawns bright and hopeful for you and your loved ones.
And, Jewishly speaking, happy spring! It's weird but true: we're on the runway for spring already.
The Jewish calendar has two over-arching time motives. One is the summer-autumn move of seven weeks leading to Rosh Hashanah, then through Yom Kippur and Sukkot to Simhat Torah. The other is the winter-spring move from Tu b'Shevat through Purim and Passover to Shavuot. And because this year's Tu b'Shevat falls "early" in January, we are entering onto the runway to spring.
It feels crazy early, and that's the main point....
My December 2023 column confessed that I'm a spring-summer person. Give me sunshine and I can handle most anything. Give me warm air and flip flops, and I'm a truly happy guy.
So it'll be zero surprise I look for first hints of spring. I don't mean worry and guilt-inducing reports that some Central Park cherry blossoms misfired and began blooming in December 2023 (true). I mean the first signs that Mother Nature is stirring into the year ahead.
The Jewish calendar has my back on this one, and yours too – if we lean into it. January will begin giving us those "spring ahead" opportunities. We'll start with Tu b'Shevat on Friday, January 19, with an opulent wine-and-cheese seder. (Be sure to register now!)
Why is spiritual spring so early... and so what? The answer is in Judaism's two cycles time, and what they're really about.
When I began with Shir Ami six months ago, we were about to start Judaism's summer-fall journey, whose destination was the harvest of Sukkot and the reboot of time, creation and Torah that we call Simhat Torah.
Judaism's summer-autumn cycle begins at Tisha b'Av, seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah, during mid-summer. We slowly prepare for the Days of Awe – the sound of the shofar calling us back, the season of teshuvah, the depth and height of spiritual renewal on Yom Kippur, the after-party harvest festival of Sukkot, the last hurrah of Simhat Torah when we end Torah and begin again. With Simhat Torah, Judaism shifts from spring-summer to autumn-winter.
This year, the events of October 7 – the very day of Simhat Torah – also launched the bloodiest attack on Jews since the Holocaust. And with it, we launched into an autumn-winter of grief, antisemitism, fear, some numbness – and now some kind of first stirring beyond. What's next for Jews, for Israel, for Judaism?
Those questions are exactly on time, spiritually speaking. They're the questions of this season next approaching, which begins... well, now. Here's how.
While Judaism's first time move aims at Sukkot, winter and early spring prepare a launch toward Shavuot. Ultimately we'll stand together at Sinai to receive Torah anew and reboot our timeless Covenant. Now let's work backwards.
To receive Torah at Sinai, our Biblical ancestors had to travel seven weeks through the desert from Egypt. (Note again the "seven weeks," a reciprocal "match" to the seven weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashanah: we'll get to that.)
To travel seven weeks from Egypt, our ancestors needed to leave Egypt. That's Passover. Passover, the Season of Liberation, aims directly at Shavuot. The purpose of Jewish liberation is revelation and the timeless Covenant continuing to flow among our people
To leave Egypt, our Biblical ancestors needed help: Ten Plagues, awesome powers, signs and wonders, a recalcitrant Pharaoh, a redemptive Moses who didn't want the job, the fact that our ancient forbears became slaves at all.
That story begins now, in this week's Torah portion (Exodus / Shemot). We'll go there this Saturday, January 6, during SoulSpa, and we'll track the next five parshiyot as we move from slavery to liberation from Egypt to revelation at Sinai. (Do join us!) Biblically, the journey to the spring festival of Passover, matzot and seders begins now.
But wait, there's more. The Jewish calendar has more in store to launch that spring journey.
Passover was timed to the ancient Mideast's first spring harvest. Which means that winter rains had to stop, seeds had to be planted, and then farmers held their breath in hopes that nature and nurture would come together. Now let's work backwards again.
Farmers held their breath about a month before the first spring harvest. Exactly one month (er, moon-th) before Passover is... Purim. What many moderns call "Jewish Halloween for adults" is, in fact, a spiritual celebration amidst anxiety and antisemitism. Even the Book of Esther gets in on the game because in it God makes no appearance. In our anxiety, in anti-Jewish hate, in suffering, God seems to be absent. So Purim is a holiday of concealment (costumes) and inverting our anxiety into frivolity – precisely to flip our awareness upside down. We force ourselves to see fun and hope amidst the very opposite.
When does the spring planting start? Exactly one month (er, moon-th) before Purim comes Tu b'Shevat, the ritual day when Israel's first tree blossoms appear. In Israel, most years at Tu b'Shevat spring begins to stir in earnest, which signals the first spring planting. This first planting aims through anxiety and hope (Purim) to liberation (Passover), which frees us to travel forward toward Covenant (Shavuot).
It's all connected. We approach Tu B'shevat intending to launch spiritual spring, the first planting. We train our eyes to see the spiritual spring rise before it's ready. We embrace Judaism's deep truth that ultimately the unseen is more real than the seen. Tu b'Shevat begins training us for the call of Purim and Passover – to seek hope amidst despair, liberation amidst hate, life amidst death.
Tu B'Shevat and Re-Setting the Jewish Calendar
Except this year Tu B'shevat is "early." Winter has hardly begun, and already we're talking about spring? Remember last year's Rosh Hashanah also feeling "early"? The lunar year (354 days) is 11 days shorter than the solar year (365 days, or 366 days in leap years), which explains how Jewish holidays can precess backwards in the calendar and feel "early." Without some kind of calendar re-set, Passover would fall too early in March, and this year's Rosh Hashanah would feel absurdly early in August.
So Judaism re-sets its calendar approximately every three years, by adding a "leap month" after Tu b'Shevat. Thankfully, this year is one of those Jewish leap years, so after Tu b'Shevat everything will shift a month forward: Purim will come in late March, Passover at the height of spring in later April, Shavuot in June, Rosh Hashanah in early October – all "on time."
But Tu b'Shevat still comes "early." We'll need all our creativity and inner vision to see spiritual spring start to stir before we're ready, even before the calendar is ready. And spiritually, that's exactly the point. With audacity and community, there's just about nothing we can't do.
At Shir Ami, our Tu b'Shevat will be unlike any celebration anywhere. We'll use a four-course opulent wine and cheese seder, invoking practices that emerged in 1500s Israel, to begin feeling ourselves out of winter and toward the spring season ahead. In a sense, we'll re-set ourselves. You won't want to miss it.
And what a great "spring ahead" it will be. New Books of Torah (Exodus and Leviticus), a new course (Pirkei Avot / Jewish Ethics), a wow of a Purim celebration (starting thinking up your costumes!), the Passover season, our American Justice trip (probably early May), somebody's rabbinical installation and Shavuot. It'll be a wonderful season ahead.
So welcome to January – our time to begin re-setting, before we're ready. In that spirit, join me in wishing Shir Ami a Happy Spring!