Parshat Emor

Torah Reading for Week of May 12-18, 2019
“A Harvest of Faith”
By Rabbi Diane Elliot, RSMT ‘06

 

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.

 

What would it be like to begin each day with nothing in your refrigerator, nothing in your cabinets, no bank account, no mortgage, no stocks or bonds-knowing only that a great and invisible Power has promised to provide you with exactly what you need for this day – ha-yom – no more and no less? Would it be a source of anxiety…or a kind of blessed relief?
Among the mitzvot, the spiritual imperatives, conveyed in this week’s Torah portion is the interesting and somewhat mysterious injunction that we know today as the “counting of the
omer”:

 

The Divine spoke through Moses, saying, “Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I give you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring an omer from your first harvest to the Priest. He shall wave the omer beforeYHVH to gain favor for you; on the day after the rest day the Priest shall wave it….. And you shall count for yourselves-from the morrow of the rest day, from the day when you bring the omer of waving-seven weeks; they shall be seven complete (t’mimot) weeks. Until the day after the seventh week, you shall count, fifty days; then you shall offer a new meal offering to YHVH. (Leviticus 23:9-11, 15-16)

 

Most commentators agree that “the day after the rest day” refers to the second day of Passover. And so, on the second night of Passover, in Jewish homes across the world, a count is begun that will carry us from the season of liberation, Pesach, which came at the time of the early spring barley harvest in ancient Israel, to the late spring festival of Shavu’ot (Weeks), when the major crop, the wheat, would be harvested.
In ancient times, the counting of the omer served as a kind of theurgic mindfulness practice to ensure a bounteous wheat crop. Then, when the Temple no longer stood, our Sages creatively repurposed this period of practice. Noticing that the seven week-period between Pesachand Shavu’ot paralleled the time it took for the newly-freed Israelites to journey from Egyptian enslavement to Mt. Sinai and their decisive encounter with God, they linked the festival of Shavu’ot with matan Torah, the giving of Torah. Eventually, the counting of the Omer came to be seen as a period of personal and communal cleansing (t’mimot, complete, may also be translated “pure”) and repair, in preparation for that awesome, transformational moment, reenacted yearly.[1]

 

What might be the deeper implications of the omer count in its ancient context, and what truth might that hold for us today? A hint comes from the first appearance in Torah of the word “omer,” back in Exodus 16, in a section of Torah known as “parshat ha-man,” the verses about manna. When the people, newly released into the wilderness, begin to grumble to Moses and Aaron in their fear, “If only we had died in Egypt, where we had meat and ate our fill of bread,” God promises to “rain down food from heaven” for them, first quail, and then a substance that appears like a layer of encrusted dew on the ground-manna. They are to gather this mysterious substance daily, an omer a day per person, and to not keep any overnight, except on Shabbat, when one day’s portion would last for two.

 

An omer, we learn, is a dry measure equaling a tenth of an ephah, about 2.3 liters. Each day, as the people gather their one omer of manna per person, and each night, as they relinquish whatever they haven’t eaten, they are being schooled in radical trust. Traumatized by generations of oppression, they try to hoard the leftovers, just as my friend’s Holocaust survivor mother, though a well-off French matron, would stuff her purse with the extra bread rolls at the three-star restaurant where her family was dining. But when the recently-freed Israelite slaves try to eat the previous day’s manna that they’ve stashed away, they find only a stinking, maggot-filled mess. Gradually they must acquire faith that the Divine Power that has rescued them from slavery will indeed care for them in their new, freed lives.

 

There is a famous passage in the Mekhilta, an ancient midrash on the book of Exodus, that explains why the Israelites had to wander for forty years in the wilderness before God brought them into the Land of Canaan: “…God said: ‘If I bring them into the land now, every one of them will immediately take hold of his field or his vineyard and neglect the Torah. But I will make them go round about through the desert forty years, so that, having the manna to eat and the water of the well to drink, they will absorb the Torah.’ On the basis of this, Rabbi Shimon (bar Yokhai) said: ‘Only to those who eat manna is it given really to study the Torah.’ ” (Mekhilta d’ Rabbi Ishma’el, Beshallach 1) In other words, only those who have been completely dependent upon God’s khesed, who have had to rely upon the lovingkindness and generosity of the great invisible saving Force, will be able to deeply receive and comprehend the true teachings.

 

In Parshat Emor, the people are approaching the end of their more than two-year sojourn at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where they have been receiving a steady stream of Torah. They’re preparing for what they and God believe will be their imminent entry into the Land of Canaan. Settled and secure there, they will cultivate their fields and vineyards and risk forgetting their intimate and tumultuous, awesome and precious relationship with YHVH in the wilderness. The command to offer the first grain of their harvest and to count the omer calls the people to remember that original omer, the daily sustenance that fell directly from heaven, from the Divine hand, and to know that all they will build, cultivate, and harvest in their new homeland, like the manna, comes directly through the mercy and providence of a Holy Power beyond their ken. Only when their faith in that Power to sustain and nourish is strong will they gather in their true harvest; only then will the Torah reveal herself to them as an ever-evolving source of joy and learning upon which to base lives of flow, balance, and wholeness.

 

Like the ancient Israelites, we who learn and teach Torah are enjoined to remember and stay tuned to the Source of our sustenance. Our harvest of faith may not manifest in food or other material gifts falling from the sky, but rather as a deeply cultivated, moment-by-moment awareness of the Mystery that upholds and infuses the universe, making this very moment of existence possible. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The words of the Bible are sources of spirit. They carry fire to the soul and evoke our lost dignity out of our hidden origins.” (God in Search of Manp. 253) May we merit to touch that spirit, to dip into the wellsprings of Torah, and to taste of that harvest on a daily basis.

 


[1] For a detailed description of the evolution of the Omer count and the kabbalistic practice of associating each day of the Omer period with a combination of two sefirot, qualities of Divine emanation, see Rabbi Min Kantrowitz’s excellent Counting the Omer, a Kabbalistic Meditation Guide.