Anticipation. Expectation. Excitement. Trepidation. Transition.
I am sure that these are just some of the feelings that today’s Bat Mitzvah and her family have been feeling leading up to this day, the day on which she demonstrates, in the presence of the entire community, that she has arrived – arrived at the beginning of her Jewish adulthood.
Today is like a mini-Festival for the Bat Mitzvah family, a personal Yom Tov, which is a great cause for celebration. Looking back from this vantage point, one can see that there was a distinct beginning to this process. All of the families who have children that are going to become Bat or Bar Mitzvah in the coming year gathered for a B’nai Mitzvah family meeting about one year ago, and we began this process of becoming for each family together. I say “together” because not only does each child transition from being a minor to an adult in the eyes of Jewish tradition, but the family also undergoes a transition into a new version of that family, with changing dynamics and evolving. responsibilities.
Anticipation. Expectation. Excitement. Trepidation. Transition.
In this week’s Torah portion, in one of the sections that occurs after what we read this morning, we find one of the Torah’s several festival calendars laid out for us. It begins with Shabbat, which takes place every week from sundown Friday to nighttime on Saturday night. Then we begin the festivals with Passover, which takes place in the Spring, and recalls the Exodus, when we left the slavery of Egypt, and began to head towards the Promised Land.
The next part of the calendar gets a little strange. It is not a one day festival or even a one week festival that gets mentioned, but rather a entire period of time between two festivals that lasts seven weeks. By coincidence, this is the period of time in which we find ourselves right now, a period called Sefirat Ha’Omer, or the Counting of the Omer, which is a fifty day transition from the second night of Passover until Shavuot, which is the festival that is connected to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai:
“When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first omer/sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave/elevate the sheaf before the Eternal for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall wave/elevate it on the day after the sabbath.” (Vayikra 23:9-11)
“And from the day on which you bring the omer/the sheaf of wave/elevation offering—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 the Eternal. You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an wave/elevation offering; …as first fruits to the Eternal.” (Vayikra 23:15-17)
It is a weird passage to include in a festival calendar, and its inclusion begs a number of questions. First of all, why do we bring a sheaf, called an omer, of barley, as an offering to God. Barley is generally considered best suited for animal feed; why do we offer it in this setting? Second, what is the meaning of this transition? Why do we count these fifty days from the second day of Passover until Shavuot? Third, on Shavuot, why do we bring two loaves of baked wheat bread? Last, what does it mean to wave or elevate both the daily omer/sheaf of barley and the two loaves of wheat bread, and why do we elevate them?
The 20th century author known as the Netivot Shalom, passes on a series of teachings from his father about the Counting of the Omer, that this period of time between Passover and Shavuot is a time of tremendous transition and anticipation.
For the Netivot Shalom, Passover represents our leaving behind constraints, whether those constraints are physical, such as we were endured during centuries of Egyptian slavery, or psychological, such as being stuck in a particular mindset that limits the potential for what is even considered possible, or developmental, such as being a child, with all of the constraints that naturally come from being a smaller, developing human being.
At the other end of the Counting of the Omer stands Shavuot, which represents where we are heading, to the top of the mountain, to a place of expansiveness, enlarged perspective, receptivity and understanding. This could be a physical transition, as it was for us back them during our time in the wilderness, or it could be psychological, reaching a new mindset that enables us to see the world and our place in it from a new vantage point, or it could be developmental, reaching those physical and cognitive milestones that change both how we see children in the community and how those children begin to look at themselves differently.
But it is during the Counting of the Omer that we focus on the transition. We do not focus on where we have been, or where we are going. We spend forty-nine days focusing on how we get from here to there. And the ritual offerings from this week’s Torah portion hint at what how this process works.
Let’s look at the barley and the wheat. The forty-nine sheaves of unprocessed barley are generally used for animal feed, while the two loaves of bread offered on the fiftieth day are made from milled and baked wheat, which is generally used for humans food. The cutting of the barley is like the moment of Leaving of Egypt; detached from the past, but just, and now exists in the in-between state of raw material with potential, but is far from the finished product. During these forty-nine days, we invited to consider in what ways are we still raw material, freed slaves, undeveloped, children, – and what is our full potential? What will it take to get us to the next stage?
On Shavuot, we offer up two loaves of wheat bread, which are symbols of the human-divine partnership. Bread cannot be made without humans, and without the divine gift of wheat, sun, rain, soil, wind and stone, we cannot make bread. The bread represents our full potential, the combination of all these various elements that when brought together unlock the grains to reach their full potential, to create something radically new out of raw materials and resources.
For forty-nine days, we examine our raw, inner stuff, our potential to become far more than we are today, and each day during the Counting of the Omer, we move closer to our full potential. But why the waving or elevation? It almost sounds silly.
In the traditional rabbinic commentaries, they imagine the cohen’s waving or elevating of the sheaves of barley and the loaves of wheat bread like this (moves hands in all four directions in and out, up and down), waving them in all four directions, and then up and down. The rabbis notice that there one and only one other waving/elevation ritual, which is when Aaron the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest “waves” or “elevates” the his ancestral tribe of Levites as they began to take on their formal service in the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. For the Netivot Shalom, this waving/elevating gesture hints at an elevation in the level of holiness, specifically to increase one awareness of being in God’s service, like the Levites.
What does that mean to cultivate this kind of awareness? For the Netivot Shalom, this is the essence of the entire Counting of the Omer period.
Becoming aware implies that we are currently unaware or asleep. Not physically asleep, but spiritually asleep. (If someone next to you is actually asleep, give them a gentle nudge.) Most people go through their day in a dream-like state on autopilot, without giving attention to their own real needs, to the needs of others around them and their communities. And it is hard to be awake, to be conscious of all that people and life demands of us. It is a natural defense mechanism to want to go back sleep in order to avoid life’s vicissitudes. Who among us has not wanted to stay in bed all day to avoid a difficult day? But if we all remained asleep, unaware and unconscious, consider how the world would simply run itself into the ground, crash ands burn.
For the Netivot Shalom, the goal of Counting the Omer is to help us to wake up from our slumber. As if we were the sheaf of barley itself, shaken by the cohen in all six directions, we shake ourselves awake, a little each day, to an increased level of awareness of our inner faults, of what we need to do to repair ourselves, of our responsibilities, of our potential to do good for those around us. And that is a lot to become aware of. That could easily overwhelm anyone, even the most in-tune person. If the Counting of the Omer were a one day ritual, it would never work! Because when we are awakened to all that we must do, a little voice inside of us tries to take over again, and lull us back to sleep, (Let someone else do that; they’re better at it. It’s not that bad. That’s too difficult; don’t even try to change that. It’s just who you are!) because it is so difficult to wake up to our responsibilities, and to what it takes to make real change in our selves. It take weeks and weeks of consistent work.
And it is hard work. We read several weeks ago in the beginning of Vayikra/Leviticus, “When a human offers from you/michem to God.” One way to understand this word “michem/from you” is that any real offering of substance has to come from our very bones, our inner essence, and it it supposed to be difficult and important and substantial. Otherwise, it would not be called a sacrifice.
On one level, this is all history. We left Egypt, spent seven weeks in the wilderness, and then stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah.
On another level, every year, we see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, and then standing again at Sinai, to personally re-receive the Torah again.
But the Netivot Shalom hints that this is not only a historical lesson, nor a liturgical exercise, but this is what it means to be human. Every day is a Counting of the Omer, with an understanding that each of us is a sheaf of raw barley, just cut from the ground, a bundle of raw material with potential locked inside. If you were to only eat barley raw, you would die of malnutrition, unless you were an animal.
We all begin as barley, and we all want to end up as bread. That takes time and work, hard work, both divine and human. We need to take our raw material and to process it, break it down, ferment it, cook it, to take the raw material and to make it better by removing the chaff and find the kernel that can become the flour, to make it nutritious and good tasting. It take a daily shake up to help us wake up to make each day count, taking one step closer to the mountain.