Drash on Parashat Emor 2019
Rabbi Martha Bergadine
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
The gap between the practices outlined in the Torah and how we live Judaism in the 21st century is apparent in this week’s Torah portion Emor. The book of Leviticus is sometimes called Torat Kohanim – the priest’s manual – and Parashat Emor demonstrates why as it focuses on detailed regulations regarding the priests including who they may marry and who they may mourn, their physical condition, and scrupulous details about the sacrificial system. The text feels very distant from us – archaic, even primitive – until the instructions regarding the festival calendar are put forth. Admittedly, the holidays are listed in Emor to set out the particular roles and responsibilities of the priests, yet today’s celebrations are recognizable. Shabbat is listed first, with the commandment of sacred rest on the seventh day. Passover, with its prohibition of leavened bread is mentioned next. There is a hint of what will become Rosh Hashanah, the instruction for self-denial on Yom Kippur, and the instruction to dwell in sukkot during the Festival of Booths.
As distant as it may feel, the holiday calendar is a thread tying us across the generations to our Biblical ancestors. But while we recognize our holidays in those of the Torah, centuries of Jewish life and creativity have reimagined and reshaped our celebrations so that they speak powerfully today.
This particularly struck me as I read in the parasha about the Counting of the Omer.
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of the elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath (interpreted as Passover) -- You shall count off seven weeks. . . You must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days. Then you shall bring an offering of new grain to Adonai. (Lev 23: 15-16)
We are currently in the midst of counting the Omer* – I am writing this on the 23rd day – and this very moment is directly connected to the Torah text. Yet there are no sheaves of grain any where near me, let alone a priest to offer it up for me. Instead, the ongoing creativity of Jewish tradition has added new layers of meaning to this ancient practice.
At its deepest level, we do remember that during Temple times a first sheaf of the barley harvest was brought to the priest, clearly an expression of gratitude, and that the measure of that offering gives the Omer its name. This is the description given in the parasha.
Later, the period of the Omer became a time of semi-mourning when 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students were killed either by a “plague” (Yevamot 61b) or in the Bar Kokhba revolt of 132-136 CE. Based on this, traditional Jews do not shave or cut their hair, listen to music or attend happy occasions like weddings and parties during most of the Omer. Carrying this further, in the 19th century, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein put forth the mourning of the Omer period as also memorializing Jews who were murdered during the Crusades, pogroms, and blood libels that occurred in Europe. Currently, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, modern observances of remembrance and mourning, also take place during the Omer.
In contrast, the forty-nine-day period of counting the Omer is also seen as a time for personal growth. Pirke Avot 6:6 is seen as particularly appropriate, as it enumerates the "48 ways by which Torah is acquired.” One “way” is to be studied one each day with all 48 reviewed on Day 49 in preparation for Shavuot and its celebration of the giving of Torah.
The Kabbalists also viewed the period of the Omer as a time for personal growth through reflection on one’s character. Each of the seven weeks of the count is associated with one of the seven lower sefirot and each day of the week is also associated with a sefira. This results in 49 permutations that are said to each represent an aspect of character that can be refined or developed further.
In more recent times, counting the Omer has taken shape as sort of Jewish mindfulness practice. Life comes at such a frenetic pace that the days become a blur. Taking a moment in the evening to count the Omer requires a pause, even briefly, and recognition that no two days are the same. Each day of counting spurs reflection -- What did I do with this time that will never come again? What will I do with the gift of tomorrow?
From a sheaf of wheat offered in gratitude, to a period of remembrance and mourning, to a time of self-reflection and growth, the Omer has been reimagined and enriched, and its role in Jewish life has changed. Beyond this, it serves as a clear example of Judaism’s enduring adaptability, creativity, and relevance over millennia.
And the latest? The Omer has become digital.** There are lots of Omer calendars on the internet and my husband has an app on his phone that goes off every evening as a reminder. The beeping is annoying and has become a kind of joke in our family, but we never fail to pause, recite the blessing, and think about when we are -- in the days between Pesach and Shavuot, in the journey of Jewish history, and in the time that is our lives.
*My Jewish Learning has instructions for how to count the Omer. https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/blessing-for-counting-the-omer/
** Yes, there is an app https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/omer-a-counting/id1090497900?mt=8