Sunday, April 10, 2011

Elijah and the Promise of Spring

Why is this coming Shabbat different from all other Shabbats (except—sort of—one in the fall)?

For much of Jewish history, rabbis only delivered two sermons per year. One of those occasions was this Shabbat, immediately preceding Pesach, which is known as Shabbat HaGadol—the Great Sabbath. The other was Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

There are some significant parallels between these two special Shabbats. Both mark seasons of unique spiritual power, with the promise of reward and liberation. Indeed, in biblical times, the new year was celebrated in this spring month of Nisan; the Rabbis later moved it to the autumn month of Tishrei with Rosh Hashanah. Thus Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Shuvah are, in a sense, bookends. They help us prepare to properly enter the two pivotal periods of the Jewish year.

But there are also significant differences between these two holy days and the seasons that they introduce. The Days of Awe in the fall are essentially times of judgment and introspection. We take a spiritual accounting of ourselves and stand before the True Judge. Pesach, by contrast, is about turning outward, toward the wider world. The name of this month, Nisan, means “bud.” This is a season of flowering and renewal. As Rabbi Jill Hammer notes in The Jewish Book of Days: “This is a different kind of rebirth than the one at Rosh Hashanah; this is a birth that draws us out of ourselves.” In the fall, we pray for rain—which Jewish tradition always depicts as a sign of God’s favorable judgment upon our deeds. In the spring, beginning at Pesach, we thank God for dew, which is a symbol of divine mercy—for we enjoy its blessings as a gift of grace, without regard for our worthiness.

These aspects of spring’s unique promise: grace, budding, outward turning toward nature and community—are evident in the special haftarah reading for Shabbat HaGadol. At the end of this passage, from the book of Malachi, the prophet reassures us of the power of God’s love as expressed in the restoration and repair of our most precious relationships: “I will send the prophet Elijah. . . and he will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents.” I love this image, with its beautiful promise of healing and hope that is so much in keeping with this spring season.

This week, as Shabbat HaGadol approaches, consider: as you prepare to welcome Elijah at seder next Monday, how can you strengthen your relationships with family, friends, and community?

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