I am really starting to appreciate the rather simple logic that sacrificing the right number of goats to the Sun God will result in, well, sunny days. Perhaps I ought to bring a flock of bleating animals to the Canaanite sun goddess, Shemesh, at her temple, or house: Beit Shemesh.
In the distant past, some Jews, falling into the error of idol worship, did pray to the sun. During the tumultuous times that closed the era of the First Temple, Ezekiel, that tragic prophet, described the following scene: “Then He brought me into the inner court of the House of the Lord, and there, at the entrance to the Temple of the Lord, between the portico and the altar, were about 25 men, their backs to the Temple of the Lord and their faces to the east; they were bowing low to the sun in the east.” (Ezek. 8:16) These Jews enjoyed both sunny days and the better times they portend. Many of us do.
To be clear, I am not actually a Canaanite. And while, as the Passover Haggadah says, “In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” I only sacrifice my soul to the one true God. Yet two pernicious forces combine to animate my sympathies toward paganism: winter and COVID-19.
For those who enjoy the frosty nips of winter’s chill, I have some bad news for you: You are mistaken. Ever since humans could tell stories, they invented myths to explain the cause of winter and to hope for its end. These tales spoke of gods who would die, descend to the underworld, and then rise again. And no, I am not talking about Jesus.
Consider the Mesopotamian deity whose name we know so well but whose story we no longer tell. Long before he became a Jewish (and originally a Babylonian) month, two features marked the mythological life of Tammuz. Every year between February and March, he would (re)marry the goddess of fertility, Ishtar (Esther). And, during June or July—the month that bears his name—he would die, descending into the dark abyss of the underworld for a lonesome half-year.
An entire cult developed around this cycle. In the ancient Near East, kings bedded their high priestess to symbolically reenact the marriage between Tammuz and Ishtar. And Tammuz’s death would be commemorated by rites of mourning. This last ritual even penetrated into Judaism’s most sacred site. Ezekiel, in the same vision mentioned above, observes: “Next He brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the House of the Lord; and there sat the women bewailing Tammuz.” (Ezek. 8:14)
In short, winter is awful.
Perhaps I am a tad jealous of the pagan’s ability to express this idea in rich mythological terms. And all the more so of her religious vocabulary, in which spring signals hope and renewal.
Under normal circumstances, I would not quite care. Wintertime offers a few pleasures that help pass its brutal months: the guilt-free consumption of hot cocoa, the dancing flames in a wood-burning fireplace, and even—in much moderation—compact snow for snowball fights. But the most important solace during this deep cold has been denied: the warmth of friends and company. Outdoor socially distant gatherings, once under the gaze of a smiling sun, have been replaced by long hours of indoor quarantine, a rite of isolation worthy of Tammuz’s time in hell.
Never have I felt so connected to the cycles of seasons and tied to the fickle fortunes of the rain, snow, sleet, and hail. The mostly weather-resistant box I call a “house,” among the most advanced trappings of my modern life, fails to provide me with the feelings of “home”—acting instead as an indoor prison.
And worse still, I am about to celebrate Passover, a holiday inimical to all types of confinement. As the Passover Haggadah demands: “In each generation a person must imagine oneself leaving Egypt.” And as its opening liturgy, the blessing over wine, wants us to believe, that day is “the Festival of the Unleavened Bread (hag hamatzot), a time of our freedom.” Where might I find freedom in this interminable COVID-19 winter?
The wine liturgy holds the answer.
In the most ancient of times, Jews and Canaanites were incredibly similar. They belonged to a Semitic ethnicity, refrained from eating pork, and worked within the same rhythms of daily life. Because of these similarities, the Torah created a framework to ensure that Jews thanked the correct, and only, God for their seasonal bounties and burdens. It overlaid the shared agricultural calendar of the Land of Canaan/Israel with fragments of distinctive historical memories, differentiating Jew from gentile.
In this manner, most major Jewish holidays took on a dual identity: one seasonal and the other historical. The annual Harvest Festival (hag ha’asif) became Sukkot, a holiday that celebrates the time that the Israelites dwelled in booths. And the Wheat Harvest (hag hakatzir) morphed into Shavuot, an event connected with the Exodus (Deut. 16:12) and eventually with God giving the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai.
Passover, which we primarily associate with the story of Jews leaving Egypt, also underwent such a transformation. Consider Exodus 23:15, the first time that the phrase “Feast of Unleavened Bread” appears in the Bible and the verse from which the wine liturgy drew its inspiration: “You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the set time in the month of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed.” As it so happens, Passover coincides with the Abib, the beginning of the spring, when ears of barley (literally abib) first ripen. This holiday, like the other major pilgrimage festivals, combines the specific nuances of Israelite history with a land that undergoes cyclical seasonal change.
And it is this agricultural aspect of Passover that fills me with hope this year. The menace of a COVID-19 winter taught me that I am more in sync with the seasonal cycle than I once cared to admit. Not because I am well-connected with the land and depend upon its bounty (although this is probably also true), but rather because I am inextricably bound with the lives of other humans. We are, to varying degrees, social animals. To me, Passover signals the advent of spring, that my time boxed in the four walls of a house is soon at an end. It offers the gift of freedom: the freedom to gather, the freedom to interact with other humans in the flesh, and the freedom to once again enjoy the outdoors.
Passover promises that warm, sunny and social days are coming. No sacrificial goats or reincarnating gods required.
A.J. Berkovitz is an Assistant Professor at HUC-JIR in NYC. He is the co-editor of Rethinking ‘Authority’ in Late Antiquity.