By Ori Bergman
Every year, during the late winter, as the nights are cold and the days creep above freezing, something amazing happens out of sight. The trees begin to come to life. The changing temperature causes a pressure change in the trees forcing sap up through its vascular transporting tissues providing nourishment. In the case of maple trees, tapping into the sap (in a way that doesn’t damage the tree) can provide many gallons of a subtly sweet liquid which after hours of evaporation, can be turned into maple syrup (see HERE for a short clip on the process).
In the past month, I had the opportunity to make maple syrup sourced from the maple trees in my yard. I was inspired by my friend, Dr. Iris Danziger, who coached me through this process. In reflecting on the experience, there were many lessons learned that also have relevance to the time leading up to Passover. Here are a few of these reflections which I hope will help you prepare for a meaningful and joyous holiday.
All Beginnings are Hard
All beginnings are hard, declare our sages (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael), particularly when we encounter something new, unfamiliar and different.
Crafting maple syrup for the first time is no different and the stakes are high. If you drill too many holes in a tree, you can damage it; if the holes are too wide, the sap will leak and not get captured; if you boil the sap at home, your walls will get sticky; if you boil the sap more than 7 degrees higher than the boiling point of water, you can burn the batch.
Passover too can be intimidating: cleaning one’s house of chametz (leaven products), crafting a Seder that will be joyful and meaningful; cooking many dishes and preparing all that is necessary; studying the details and meaning of the holiday in anticipation; and finally, let’s not forget its added financial expense.
How do we move forward without getting overwhelmed and ensuring a meaningful holiday?
Mentorship & Modeling
Aseh lecha Rav U’Kneh Lecha Chaver, say our Sages! (Ethics of the fathers 1:6.) Literally, make for yourself a Rabbi and/or mentor [from whom to ask questions in Judaism] and acquire a friend [to confide in and study with].
I was fortunate to have Iris coach me through the process, answers questions, share her experience and model the process. With a mentor and friend, what might take many mistakes (and hours of YouTube videos), can be corrected in a short amount of time.
This is so true of Passover (and Judaism in general) and is highlighted on the holiday’s insistence on questions. This custom is rooted in the Torah (When your child asks of you- Exodus 13:14) and is found throughout the Seder. We start the evening with questions (Ma Nishtana/How is this night different & questions of the 4 children) and various rituals appear simply to arouse the curiosity of children and guests. On Passover, we create a link between the generations and this happens through questions and dialogue. So more than anything, as you prepare for the holiday- ask questions and seek answers. Seek friends, mentors and Rabbis and ask anything- recipes, seder ideas, the how/what/why’s etc… And don’t forget to pay it forward to those who you can help have a meaningful holiday. Let’s not forget the internet (and Rabbi Google) which makes preparing for Passover more accessible to all. If you feel somewhat overwhelmed and not sure where to start, consider THIS collection of resources to get your started.
Trust the Process
Our sages make a bold statement: If a person says to you: I have labored and not found success, do not believe them. Similarly, if they say to you: I have not labored but nevertheless I have found success, do not believe them. If, however, they say to you: I have labored and I have found success, believe them” (Megillah 6b) Stated slightly differently, the reward is commensurate with the effort (Ethics of the Fathers 5:23).
Making Maple Syrup is an emotionally and physically taxing endeavor. There’s drilling, hammering, lifting, cooking, sifting and so much more… especially patience. Yet, I found, when you just trust the process, put in the effort, learn from the mistakes, something amazing happens: sweet maple syrup.
The maple syrup of Passover is the conversation between the generations. It is laughter and joy as we fulfill the Mitzvot of the holiday and relive our story with family, friends and community. But to get there takes forethought, planning, time and effort. So our sages say: one should begin to inquire about the laws of Pesach thirty days before the actual holiday [on Purim] (Pesachim 6b). Like in all matters of importance, the more we put in [with joy], the more we get out! And what can be more meaningful and rewarding then sitting around a seder table telling and reliving OUR story to friends, family and especially the next generation.
Finally, Maimonides teaches that contemplating the natural world and its awe-inspiring wonders leads one to feel attached and in unity with the Creator and Source (God.) (Foundations of the Torah 2:1).
The process of making Maple Syrup alerts you to the wonder of God’s creations and fills you with gratitude. It’s hard to describe but there’s something amazing when your life force interacts with the life force of the tree. You see how its life enhancing contribution supersedes its quiet and humble nature. In the process, you discover a lesson that is fundamental to our tradition (in that it is highlighted by Shabbat when we are told not to exert our mastery over creation): namely, that we are not the creators, but created beings in harmony with all of God’s creations. The result is inner peace and rejuvenation.
In the Passover Haggadah, we quote Psalm 118 in declaring: “Give thanks to Hashem (the Creator/Source) for He is good, for His Kindness is limitless.” We near the end of the seder with an embrace of an attitude of gratitude. Grateful that we are here! We have family, we have friends and we have opportunities. Grateful to be a link between the generations and for the privilege to add our very own chapter in Judaism’s unfinished story (Rabbi Sacks in “Why I am a Jew.”) May we celebrate all together, next year in Jerusalem!
With blessings for a Chag Kasher V’Sameach!
Ori Bergman is the Rabbi of Kehillat Ohr Tzion and a member of LiNK Jewish Buffalo education team.