You would think that counting from one to fifty would be simple, yet it seems that more years than not, I inevitably miss a day here or there. Or ten. This daily counting is the main mitzvah of this season, which is known as Sefirat Ha’Omer (The Counting of the Omer), or Sefirah for short.
In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, we read about one of the Torah’s calendars of the year. Between the section of Pesach and Shavuot (from the evening of May 27 through May 30), we find the following:
“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation (omer ha-t’nufah) – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to God.” (Vayikra 23:15-16)
Given that we no longer have the Beit Mikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, for bringing grain offerings, all that remains of this ritual for us is the act of counting. Our lack of experience with farming makes this original ritual seem even more remote. Despite our lack of a Beit Mikdash and agricultural know-how, this counting still serves a purpose. For example, the counting connects Pesach to Shavuot, reminding us that freedom without the constraint of law leads to anarchy; the law is necessary to be truly free. There are also mystical meditations that accompany this countdown to Sinai that help us prepare to receive the Torah. However, I want to look at the original ritual from the Beit Mikdash to see what Sefirat Ha’Omer is all about.
The original Sefirah ritual involved the bringing of one omer (a biblical volume of grain) of the newly ripened barley crop to the Beit Mikdash every day for forty-nine days. Barley is the crop that ripens during the end of the rainy season in the land of Israel leading up to Pesach. This was such an important ritual in the Beit Mikdash that the Rabbis would add an extra month to the year in order to let the barley crop ripen if it was not ready for harvesting by Pesach. Hence, the system of the Jewish leap year.
In the midrashic collection the Pesikta De-Rav Kahana, Rabbi Avin teaches us about the care with which Israel would prepare this offering:
“Come, behold what are Israel exercised in obedience to the precept of the sheaf of barley! As we learn in a Mishnah, “they reaped it, put it into baskets, and brought it to the Temple court. [And in order to prepare it for grinding], they used to expose it to fire in keeping with the ordinance that it be parched with fire (Vayikra 2:14)….But the Rabbis say: They use to beat it with reeds and with the stems of plants so that the grains should not be crushed, Then they put it into a copper pipe, a perforated pipe, so that the fire might get at all the grains. (Mishnah Menachot 10:4). Immediately afterward, as we learn in the same passage in the Mishnah, “They spread it out in the Temple courtyard so that the wind blew over it [to cool them]. Then they put it into a grist mill and took from there a tenth [of an ephah of flour] which was then put through thirteen sieves.”
One omer of barely is a modest offering both in terms of volume and quality. Rabbi Alex Israel, from Machon Pardes, taught in his podcast that the daily korbanot (offerings brought to the Beit Mikdash) could be compared to giving someone flowers. Different kinds of flowers in different amounts mean different things. Giving someone a dozen red roses is very different then giving someone a single lily. Giving God an omer of barley is like giving someone a bouquet of dandelions. Not very impressive. First, an omer is about the same as four liters, just under a gallon. Second, barley is generally considered to be animal feed. But the level of care and handling with which they prepared this offering speaks to its importance. In the same Midrash, Rabbi Levi teaches about the meaning of the Omer:
“Behold, [God says], you have labored – you have plowed, sown, weeded and pruned, hoed and reaped, bound the sheaves, threshed and stacked the sheaves; still if I brought not forth a little wind to winnow for you, how would you or anyone else stay alive? And you will not pay Me a wage for the wind? After all, What profit would there be [for a person] if he were to labor to make the wind blow? (Kohelet 5:15)
According to Rabbi Levi, there is a danger when it comes to thinking about food. The farmer is in danger of thinking that he or she does all of the work to produce the food. They might get caught up in the very long and complex process that takes a seed and turns it into a plant for food. Yes, the farmer controls a lot of the process, but the farmer has no control over the sun, clouds, rain and wind. Those are all in God’s hands. And as the Midrash points out, if there was no wind to remove that chaff from the grains, it would not be possible to make enough food for everyone. Like the farmer, we are in danger of thinking that food just comes pre-packaged from Giant Eagle or Trader Joe’s. We take for granted the process that gets the food from the ground to our tables.
Humanity and God are partners in feeding our planet. God has provided the resources and tools, and we do the rest of God’s work. There is a particular verse from Ashrei (said three times a day) which the Rabbis loved: You open up Your hand and feed every creature to its heart’s content (Tehillim 145:16). This verse reminds us that God has put the potential for feeding everyone in our hands. It is up to us to do the rest of God’s work.
The modesty of the Omer offering speaks to our inability to adequately thank God for the sustenance we derive from our planet. If we tried to show the appropriate amount of thanks, we would never be done thanking God. So Israel poured all of its gratitude into the processing of the barley. The daily Omer is but a small token that says, “Thank you God for being our partner in feeding the world. If not for the right amount of rain at the right time, enough sun and enough wind, we would all surely starve.” In this case, it actually is the thought that counts.
This perspective is not taught only through the ritual of the Omer. The Rabbis created an entire system of Brachot that drives this point home throughout the course of a day. “Bountiful are You, YHVH our God, Sovereign of Space-Time, who brings bread out of the earth.” You have probably noticed that this brachah is wrong. Bread does not spring out of the earth. Plants do. This brachah reminds us that we are God’s partner in turning that plant into something edible. All brachot point to the fact that we are all utterly dependent on God for life, and at the same time that we are God’s partner.
So during this Sefrat Ha’Omer season, take an extra moment each day to reflect on your gratitude for the planet that God has provided us with, to partnership that we have with God, and for the food that sustains us each and every day.
AS A FAMILY:
- During the week, plan an entire meal with the family. Search for recipes, make the menu, develop the shopping list and cook together. Being involved in more of the process of making food can enrich our connection to that food.
- Visit a farm, and learn what a farmer does to take the seed and turn it into a full grown plant.
- Count the Omer each evening until Shavuot.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WEEK’S PARSHA, ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS:
- What are some of the dos and don’ts for the Kohanim?
- Who is allowed to eat the korbanot? Who is not allowed?
- Of what quality must an animal be to be offered as a korban?
- What does it mean to make God’s name holy? What does it mean to profane God’s name?
- What is the first holy day mentioned in the calendar section of this week’s Torah portion? Which phrase is Friday night Kiddush refers to this fact?
- According to Vayikra 23:2 and 23:4, who is in charge of establishing the calendar?
- How is a farmer supposed to help the poor of their community?
- Which section refers to Rosh Hashanah? What mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is mentioned in this section?
- What are the two sections that mention Sukkot? Why do you think that the second section comes after what appears to be a concluding paragraph to the entire calendar?
- In chapter 24, how is what Aaron does for the Mishkan like what we do for Shabbat? How is Shabbat like the Mishkan?
- What is the controversy found at the end of Emor? Who resolves the issue? What does this have to say about the evolving nature of law?