The following holidays are described: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Notice that our favorites of Hanukkah and Purim are not mentioned. These, it should be noted, are nowhere to be found in the Torah. This is why they are accorded minor status, despite our fondness for them and especially our children's love for them.
During biblical times our holidays were constructed around our people's agricultural sentiments. For farmers the year began with the spring and was marked by the holiday of Passover. With the exception of Shabbat there were no holidays during the winter. Sukkot marked the end of seasons, and the conclusion of the harvests, in the fall which is why it was the most important holiday called, "he-chag," the holiday. Shavuot marked the summer's first fruits. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rather than being the most important days of the year were instead a prelude to the concluding holiday of Sukkot.
As the Jewish people moved farther away from the land, and in particular from farming the land, the calendar shifted. Rosh Hashanah became the season of personal introspection and repentance. The holidays of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot came to emphasize their roots in the Jewish history of slavery, wandering the desert and receiving of Torah rather than their agricultural themes. Passover was once connected in particular to the beginning of the barley harvest, Shavuot the first fruits and wheat harvest and Sukkot the conclusion of the farming season.
We of course live in a time when we are disconnected from the agricultural calendar. Our children have little sense of connection between the foods they eat and the seasons that give rise to particular fruits and vegetables. They have no idea that strawberries, and blueberries, are summer fruits. In our supermarkets you can find strawberries all year round. They are imported from other countries or grown in hothouses during the fall, winter and early spring. We can now enjoy summer fruits all year round.
Something is lost as consequence of our detachment from growing our own food. It is obvious what we have gained. (I love blueberries and strawberries!) We are losing a connection to the natural world. We have become keenly unaware of nature's ebb and flow; we no longer see ourselves as dependent on the vicissitudes of the natural world. How many have stopped eating lettuce, for example? If the lettuce crop in Arizona becomes tainted we import it instead from California.
We have to reclaim our connection to nature. I know very few are going to become farmers, (I certainly am not) but perhaps a vegetable garden might restore something to our lives. Or it could be as simple as walking to a friend's house rather than driving. Take in the blooming trees on this walk. Slowly breathe in the natural world. Then again it could be as easy as reclaiming our holidays' roots in nature's seasons. The holidays were attached to the seasons because our lives were once dependent on the fall, spring and summer crops.
Just as we depended on the season's crops so too we depend on the holidays. We desperately need to recover a consciousness about nature. It's not only about the summer fruits I so often crave, but instead about our dependence on the world and its seasons.
The purpose of our tradition's blessings is to remind us of this connection to nature. Every blessing for food speaks of how the food is grown. For wine, we say, "...who creates the fruit of the vine." And for cantaloupe (I anticipate the local harvest this summer), "...who creates the fruit of the earth." For bread, we recite, "...who brings forth bread from the earth." Imagine that. Bread does not emerge from the earth. And yet we insist on emphasizing God's ingredients rather than the baker's craft.
Most people do not know that the shehechiyanu blessing is said to mark a new season and in particular when eating its fruit for the first time. In an age when you can eat every fruit in every season we no longer need to say this blessing for food. It is now only reserved for joyous occasions. But it is the perfect expression of what should be our wonderment in the natural world. "Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe, who gives us life, sustained us and brought us to this very time."
Have you ever gone strawberry picking? Have you ever eaten berries off the vine? Sure, you can buy more strawberries at Costco; sure you can buy the super-size pack of blueberries. They will not taste the same. The experience will not feel the same. If you were to go berry picking, there in the field, with the sun beating on your back, you can savor those beautiful, and delicious fruits planted by our hands but nurtured by God's earth.
That is the sense our holidays must recover. An appreciation of the natural world is what the holidays were also intended to inculcate.