Monday, April 6, 2009

A Rare Holiday

With the weather here in the glorious 70s with sunshine, I had to take advantage. Yesterday I joined throngs of camera-wielding families at the quad of the University of Washington, where a circle of grandly gnarled cherry trees are in magnificent full bloom. Spring has arrived, at last, in the northwest.

And with it Wednesday arrives a very special Jewish spring day. It only occurs once every 28 years, the last time in 1981. And because it is attached to the solar, rather than the usual lunar Jewish calendar, it moves--but dawns this year on the morning of another festival called "Chag Aviv," the holiday of spring, Passover. The last time the rare special day occurred on Passover eve was in 1925; the time before that, in 1309.

What is this unusual day called? I'm not sure the day has a name, but the action we perform does--reciting a blessing called "birkat ha chamma," acknowledging God's creation of His "works," when the sun returns to the position it occupied in the sky when it was created.

The hitch here is that you need to actually see the sun, at least through the clouds, in order to say this blessing. In Seattle, we can only pray that we get another couple luscious warm and clear days like yesterday and today. Because if we don't, and the sky reverts to its usual low-hanging curtain of gray, we're out of luck until 2037.

We've got a three-hour window of time to say these few magic words (well, many hold that you can say them when you see other of God's awesome works) but the profound thought for me is that we humans can agree (based on biblical calculations) when and where the sun was created. And that people for millenniums knew and agreed and said the same words, looking up (very briefly!) at that same burning orb.

This is the kind of natural phenomenon that my late father-in-law, a scientist who wrote about the confluence of the bible with the natural world, would have savored. We'll look up at the sky (if clear), and know he's reciting with us.

Meanwhile, approaching Passover, most everyone I know is scurrying.

Either they're setting aside the "chumetz" (leavened food ) in their homes and attacking the residues and residuals with various implements, be it blow torch or toothbrush--or, if they're very fortunate like me, they're packing to abandon their beer and Cheerios-stocked houses, sell all that chumetz to a non-Jew, and flee to a Passover hotel.

At these mostly sun-belt "resorts," a synagogue, kosher food purveyor, recreation and activities specialist, day care emporium and mini-university are magically assembled for the period of eight days. Families gather together from far-flung corners of the world to conduct seders and reunite in the re-enactment of our peoples' delivery from slavery to Egypt's Pharoah, to slavery instead to God. The rest of the time is divided between holidays of restricted activity similar to Shabbat, and "chol ha moed" days that are still part of the passover festival, but allow a modicum of non-holiday activity such as car travel, electricity use, necessary work and Facebook. Just kidding.

Much preparation goes into Passover, including study of the Hagada, the book containing the fifteen-step "order" that is the seder ceremony. Participants come up with novel and complex questions, and deep analyses of each aspect of the hours-long evening's discussion. Many people mistakenly think of the seder as indoctrination "for the children," but serious Jews stay up debating and querying long after the children and morning-types have drooped. Sometimes they debate how long the debate can go on.

I don't plan to take my laptop in the suitcase with the twelve fancy outfits I'll need for all the dressy meals and synagogue services that characterize the holiday, (not to mention the casual togs and walking shoes and seder-prep and speech-giving materials) so I'm afraid my blog will probably languish until my return after the holiday. I'm scurrying today not with a blow-torch but errand-running and laundry washing and okay, helping my son with his term paper on James Bond that he should have done weeks ago but must be turned in tomorrow.

I wish my Jewish friends a "Pesach kasher v'sameach," my Christian friends a Happy Easter, and for all of us, a springtime blossoming with new possibility.


  1. A few years ago, I skipped Holy Thursday Mass to attend a seder meal with a Jewish friend. Anyway, he and his brother were sort of clowning around while 'reclining at table' and I felt very connected to my own faith, seeing the joy and the communion of the family and the tradition and realizing that the Holy Thursday of a couple thousand years prior wasn't so very different. It's very odd, but I sometimes feel a stronger kinship to observant Jews than I do to some Protestant Christians.

    Safe travels and Pesach kasher v'sameach!

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