One of the 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 — 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 Ha'aviv ("holiday of spring"), is one of the Torah's three mandated pilgrimage festivals. It is 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. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance on your behalf."
This priestly grain dance symbolized prosperity and was the official green light that the season's harvest could be consumed. Jews today count the Omer for 49 days, starting on the second night of Passover — to coincide with the date of the omer offering — and continuing through Shavuot, the beginning of the wheat harvest. In most cases, however, Omer practices have been nearly disembodied, stripped of their connections to grain and ground.
Contemporary Jews are, of course, forbidden to bring sheaves of just-picked 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, which weaves together the historical and agricultural in one eating ritual.
The roasted lamb bone (z'roa), 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 peak bravely out of the just-thawed ground in early spring. The roasted egg (beitzah) recalls both the sacrifices made at the Temple, and also spring's fertility and rebirth.
Getting Rid of Excess
Even before Passover, the act of removing chametz from our homes offers other opportunities to connect to the natural world. This period of "Jewish spring cleaning" requires us to round up any bread or crumbs hiding in our kitchen cupboards. Removing chametz can also remind us to get rid of the excess "stuff" clogging up our lives.
It is a perfect time to recycle the stack of junk mail piling up on the desk, plant seedlings in the garden, start composting, switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs or volunteer for a cleanup day at a nearby river, beach, forest or park. It also offers a great opportunity to plan ahead in order to avoid the all-too-common overuse of disposable dishware during Passover. Stock your kitchen with lightweight, recycled dishes and cutlery that store easily, and can be reused year after year.
While these actions might seem like a distraction on an otherwise busy pre-Passover "to do" list, integrating them into our preparations can imbue our celebration with significance that lasts beyond the holiday.
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 is not simply historical. It is rooted to the land, to 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.