Shabbat HaGadol- The Great Message of Springtime
The Torah commands in the Book of Debarim (16:1), “Shamor Et Hodesh Ha’abib Ve’asita Pesah” – “Guard the month of spring, and observe Pesah.” Our Sages interpreted this verse as a command to always ensure that Pesah is celebrated during the springtime, the season when the Exodus occurred. The lunar system upon which the Jewish calendar is based could potentially allow the various holidays to fall at different times during the year. But since the Torah commands us to ensure that the 15h of Nissan – when Pesah begins – falls specifically during the springtime, we adjust the calendar through the leap-year system in order to keep our calendar in sync with the solar calendar.
Why is it so important for Pesah to be celebrated specifically in the spring? Shouldn’t the critical point be celebrating the day of the Exodus – the 15th of Nissan? Why are we required to commemorate the fact that Beneh Yisrael left Egypt during the spring?
One answer that has been suggested relates to the concept of prayer in Jewish thought. The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (6b) comments that prayer is among the “things which stand at the highest plane of the world, but people belittle it.” Prayer is a high and lofty experience, but people generally fail to afford it the importance it deserves. The Ba’al Shem Tob (founder of Hasidism, 1700-1760) explained that people belittle prayer because they don’t see their prayers being answered. People, by nature, like to see immediate results, and when we don’t, we are inclined to give up on the whole enterprise. So often we pray and do not receive that which we prayed for, and this leads us to either give up or to pray without any feeling or emotion. The Gemara, the Baal Shem Tob explains, is teaching us that in truth, every prayer stands “in the highest plane of the world.” G-d loves and cherishes each and every prayer that we recite, and each and every word is effective. Often, however, the effects are delayed until many generations later. If we pray for an ill patient who, in the end, does not recover, this does not mean that our prayers were recited for naught. The Ba’al Shem Tob taught that these prayers are stored “in the highest plane of the world” and will be used at some later time to cure another ill patient.
This is the meaning of the Mishna’s teaching in Pirkeh Abot that if somebody says, “Yagati Ve’lo Masati” – “I have toiled but have not achieved,” we should not believe him. If a person prayed sincerely, then his prayers were effective; they achieved a great deal. Even if he does not see their effect, he can rest assured that at some point, they will have a very significant impact. By the same token, the Mishna teaches that if somebody says, “Lo Yagati Ve’masati” – “I did not toil, yet I achieved,” he, too, should not be believed. If a person who had not been religiously observant suddenly finds himself inspired and moved to commit himself to intensive Torah study and practice, this is the result of somebody’s “toil.” Perhaps his grandfather, or great-grandfather, or great-great-grandfather, tearfully prayed that his descendants should be faithful servants of G-d and Torah scholars, and the prayers were answered several generations later. Prayer always works, though not always in the manner and at the time we ideally want.
Prayer in this sense resembles agriculture. The farmer exerts great effort cultivating the ground and tending to his crops, but it takes many months, and sometimes years, before he sees the results. The same is true of prayer, which yields great results, but not always immediately. It can sometimes take years, or generations, before the prayers bear fruit.
This is one of the vital messages of the story of Yesiat Misrayim. During the years of suffering and persecution, Beneh Yisrael cried out to G-d for help, but the situation only continued to deteriorate. Not only did their prayers not yield the result they wanted, but their condition worsened. In the end, of course, their prayers were answered, and G-d miraculously brought them out of Egypt. The story of the Exodus is one of belief in the long-term effects of prayer, and teaches us to remain firm and resolute even when our prayers are not immediately answered.
And so the Torah commands us to ensure that Pesah is always celebrated during the springtime, in the season when nature is in full bloom, when we see with our own eyes the long-term effects of agricultural efforts. The onset of spring reminds us that the product of all our hard work and effort can often be seen only long after the work is completed. This is thus the season of Pesah, the season when we celebrate Yesiat Misrayim, and when we are taught never to despair from prayer, as each and every word is precious and will, at some point, have a profound effect.