I used to think of spring as a time of new beginnings. But for one particular New England industry, spring is very much an end.
“You have to wait for a day like today, clear blue skies without clouds,” said Bernie Field, waving his arm towards the tall maple trees behind him. The sky was indeed clear and blue above us, but the bite of frost still lingered in the air. “Still cold, but with the temperatures starting to climb. Almost warm, but not yet.”
“And then you tap them.”
Maple trees store starch in their trunks and roots before the winter. In the late winter, as the trees prepare for spring, they convert the starch to sugar and it rises in their sap towards the boughs. This is the moment Bernie waits for every year, and he can’t afford to miss it. Once spring hits, buds form and consume each maple’s sugar. The opportunity to extract sweet sap and use it promptly disappears.
This narrow window of opportunity, known in New England as “Maple Weekend,” brings tourists and visitors into “sugar houses” — maple syrup production farms — all around Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. It also brings Bernie’s grown children back to the farm, where they come together to help their parents grab the moment. And, for me, it also brings home an attribute of spring I never noticed back home in Israel: spring is slippery and hard to capture. Unlike summer and winter, it never stands still, never dwells in statis. Spring is all about the process: it changes and it changes and it changes and it’s gone.
As I write, daffodils glow in the sunlight out my window, and a crimson cardinal is following his mate from tree to tree. Last week, only the crocuses were blooming, and the cardinals were nowhere to be found. Two weeks ago, buds started dotting trees around us, and male turkeys strutted down our street in search of females to impress. By now, the females are already building nests under the blooming cherry trees, and ducklings swim where there was ice but days ago. Wait another week, and other trees will blossom. Wait three, and the turkey poults will stumble underneath the lilac’s blooms.
Spring means that the “now” lasts but a moment. Blink and you’ll miss it, for it’s changing, for it’s gone.
This slipperiness, and the need the seize the moment, are at the heart of the Passover experience. The Hebrew word for missing opportunities, “le-hachmitz,” stars in the Passover menu, though in a different meaning: this word also describes the rising of dough. In the story of the Exodus, the Israelites had no time to let their bread rise before they baked it, since they had to leave Egypt in haste. We commemorate their haste by avoiding bread products that had an opportunity to rise, i.e.,”chametz,” on Passover. Thus, we commemorate the haste with which our ancestors seized an opportunity: Had they waited for their bread to rise — “lehachmitz” — they would have missed the opportunity to leave.
This haste sounds romantic and exciting looking back. But imagine what it must have been like at the time. Imagine the frantic parents running around trying to round up their children, imagine the babies crying because they were pulled out of bed. Imagine drying laundry here, “where is that bag again” there and the spats over who misplaced what in the packing. When you eat your matzah this year to commemorate that ancient haste, imagine the tears and the stress that went into it, adding to the unbearable weight of hope and fear. Will we make it, our ancestors must have wondered. Is it happening? Is it real? And why aren’t you packed yet? And where is that bag?
“I can’t really experience the Exodus at our seder table,” I have heard many friends say over the years. “I can’t think of something so solemn and grand when the kids are screaming/my in-laws are monopolizing the discussion/ the food needs serving/ my siblings keep fooling around/ our guests change all the tunes.” But in truth, the actual experience of the Exodus must have been more like the scenes these sentences evoke — messy, confusing, tense — than like the solemn procession of people we see in paintings and in Passover-themed coloring books. And as in the Exodus, the particular combination of people and tensions at our table offers us an opportunity to seize or miss: we can either open ourselves up to the experience and seek meaning within it, or get bogged down by all the ways things don’t go to our plan and miss our chance.
Passover is the holiday of spring and new beginnings. It is also the holiday of spring-like constant shifts. The opportunity is fleeting: may we know how to seize it. May we successfully tap it. May we drink its sweet sap.