Rabbinic Reflections: Mystery and majesty

“It is like spring, but I could do without the rain,” he said. I responded, “April showers bring May flowers.” He quickly retorted, “Yeah, but it is February!” Indeed, the weather has been unseasonably warm, and for all the wet, it has left us bereft of snow. Birds and plants seem to be returning despite the calendar. It is supposed to be winter here, how can nature not know?

I confess that I have not spent much time pondering the mystery of mishaps in the order of the natural world. I usually chalk up anomalous weather to climate change. Perhaps more jarring, I keep the Jewish seasonal holidays very much based on the calendar, not the weather. Something is off, and I cannot ignore the questions that poses for me.

As it happens, my preparations for Monday’s Jewish holiday known as Tu BiShvat, literally the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shvat, posed a similar question. Tu BiShvat is most often called the Jewish new year for trees, though some call it a Jewish Arbor Day or Jewish Earth Day. It has ancient roots based on tax policy for fruit-bearing trees and took on mystical significance in the early Middle Ages. The early Kabbalists developed a seder, an ordered discussion with symbolic foods and drinks. This seder has four parts for each of the seasons. The question I had to grapple with intently was with which season should we start, fall or winter.

At issue is when the fully white cup of wine or grape juice fits. Is it winter’s cold, bare climate? Is it fall’s change and loss? The answer impacts how we end the seder, too. Do we end with a sense of renewal and color with autumn or do we see summer as robust and heartening? The last season of the seder gets a fully red cup of wine or grape juice; the middle cups get a mixture. To complicate matters, Israel’s winter is the rainy season which ends up greening the land.

Our recent Brandywine Valley weather has been much like that winter blessing of rain in Israel that brings the blossoming of trees and flowers. It feels like I should have this year’s Tu BiShvat seder start with fall as the colorless season. Somehow, though, I cannot.

What I realized and can do and should do is to deepen my appreciation for the symbols for the seasons, regardless of their names or time of year. The cycle of white, clear openness turning darker little by little into the fullness of color and body is what really matters. That cycle, with each step along the way, awakes my sense of awe to the mystery of nature, of Creation. Of course, I have questions about how the birds and plants know the weather without regard to the calendar. Of course, I have questions about the flow of seasons and shifts that could be temporary or not. Those questions are precisely the mystery to which I am called to pay attention.

Frankly, I find that mystery a bit overwhelming. I am not only in awe by how little we may know with our almanacs and meteorology but also by how elaborate nature must be in that light. Contemplating the mystery even for a little while has opened my eyes to just how tremendous our natural world is. In so doing, I have come to see nature’s magnificence at a whole new level.

As inevitably our conversations turn to the weather, I invite you to wonder just a bit more deeply at the mystery you encounter. I hope you find, as I have, just how magnificent that mystery is.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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