Day Seventeen of the Omer
As we count each evening from Pesach to Shavuot – forty-nine days or a week of weeks (hence the name Shavuot or Weeks) – we say a blessing with the ending “Who has commanded us concerning counting the Omer”.
Counting the Omer comes from the biblical narrative which tells us (Leviticus 23:10-16)
“Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf (omer) of the first grain you harvest. He will wave the sheaf (omer) before God so it will be accepted on your behalf; the priest is to wave it on the day after the Sabbath. ....This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. From the day after the Sabbath, the day you brought the sheaf of the wave offering, count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath and then present an offering of new grain to the Eternal”.
From the barley harvest of Pesach to the wheat harvest of Shavuot we count the days. Biblical Jews were profoundly aware of the importance of these harvests – and the third harvest of the year at Sukkot, when the newly ripened first fruits would also be brought to the Temple. Regular rainfall could not be relied on, nor was there a large river to provide the necessary irrigation – the whole agricultural endeavour was fragile and everyone knew it. So the counting of the days as the barley harvest began at Pesach until the wheat was ready at Shavuot marked a time of both anxiety and hope. The formula – this is day X of the Omer, which is Y weeks and Z days of the Omer – focuses us each night on exactly where we are in the cycle – will the barley harvest be successfully concluded? Will the wheat be ripe and ready?
That period of anxiety and hope resonated profoundly for the rabbis who rebuilt and reoriented Judaism after the destruction of the Temple and our exile from the Land of Israel. The agricultural focus fell away and in its place we remembered the journey out of Egypt to Sinai – from our liberation from slavery to reaching a milestone towards redemption with the Covenant with God; from being frightened individuals chased out of a foreign land to becoming a people who would return to their own ancestral Land.
We are once again in a period of anxiety and hope. Our normal life and routines have not yet returned to the pre-Covid times, the surge of nationalism and populism in politics around the globe destabilises us and leaves us uncertain for the future. The changes to our climate are showing in the provision of our food and the accessibility of our water. The war in Ukraine felt unthinkable only a few years ago…..The anxiety seems endless – and yet there is also hope. We have found the hope, as did our ancestors, both in marking the passage of time as we watch the Spring arrive with its blossom and its greenery, and in growing sense of community as we begin to understand how connected we are to each other, and as we forge ever closer relationships with each other – albeit with appropriate social distancing.
Shavuot does not mark the end of anything –either agriculturally or theologically. It marks the beginning of the second major harvest of the year, or the giving and receiving of the Torah – something that can never be a single event but is in fact a process that continually unfolds. As Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, "The Giving of the Torah took place in the month of Sivan, but the receiving of the Torah takes place every day."
Maybe it is because it does not mark a clear and decisive event that Shavuot is often described as a “Cinderella festival”, one that it is hard to be enthusiastic about – apart from the cheesecakes and other delicacies. But in reality Shavuot is one of the major festivals of Judaism. Along with Pesach and Sukkot it was one of the three times Jews were meant to visit the Temple in Jerusalem in order to thank God for the foods that would sustain life. In its rabbinic guise it is the moment when the Israelites became a people; the moment when, meeting God, we accepted the Covenant for all time and all generations, we agreed to be God’s people and do God’s will. Shavuot celebrates and rehearses the foundational moment of Judaism – tradition tells us we were all at Sinai, all part of the Covenant acceptance.
So let’s celebrate the Spring time, bless the fact that we reach another day, be grateful for the community in which we live and with whom we share this journey. And as we count the days from Pesach to Shavuot, we can remember the leap of faith of both God and the Jewish people to stick with each other and travel into a hopeful future.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild Milan/London