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The Second Omer

THE SECOND OMER


From October 2023 onward we are effectively in a new Omer period and we feel it intensely. We need to create new means of marking it, new rituals to help us through it. Following the catastrophe of the end of the Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 CE it is clear that the surviving Jews, by now almost all outside the Land, were reeling in shock. Just like now there were also some who were telling them that it was their own fault because they had killed the Redeemer, the Messiah. There were and are always ''Besserwisser'', Know-It-Alls who know how the Jews should behave and should have behaved and why they are now suffering consequences for their alleged misbehaviour. Just as, in the present, the world is filled with people telling the Jews how they should behave towards (or even submit to) their oppressors, to those who hate them. It was the genius of the rabbis that they were able to turn the criticism into something a little more constructive, into a Self-Criticism, a criticism of ourselves for having followed a False Messiah, for having pursued false political ambitions... and to draw long-term lessons from this.

 

 We see several such attempts, most of which modern Jews have not understood but which may be of help to us now in recovering.


 First: The Daily Prayer. New prayers were collected and composed and edited and they included prayers for a Better Future, better in many respects than the grim Present. These became the basis of the new form of worship which had already been developing parallel to the Temple rituals but which, with the destruction of the Temple and all that went with it – the priesthood, the altar, the pilgrimages for certain Festivals, the purity regulations – now became the sole form of religious expression. Each Jew now became his own priest and could recite a Blessing, a beracha. The location of the prayers was now totally flexible and one could worship even in exile. (Out of nostalgia or symbolically one faced the site of the former Temple in Jerusalem.) We acknowledge God as the One who made promises to our patriarchal ancestors, who can revive the dead, who can restore the government and the monarchy and the land and the justice system and the 'good years' of the past, who keeps faith with the dead, ''those who are now sleeping in the ground'' but who can be revived..... When the Great Shofar is blown the exiles will return from their scattered dwellings all over the world....

 Of course one can note that the entire liturgy repeats again and again the reminder that we were once enslaved but have now been redeemed and that God loves us just as we are commanded to love God and thus encourages the worshipper to retain faith for the future.


 Second: The Pessach Seder. The People of Israel were no longer Free so they had to concentrate now on recalling that this was not the first time they had faced Catastrophe and they had to recall the stories of their Combined Past (anyone who did not share this combined past, who was not in the Covenant, was excluded.) In the past they had been pagan polytheists, then they had received a covenant with God, they had been persecuted FROM THAT TIME ONWARDS even by Arameans simply for having their own relationship with a single God... Yet this God had led them first into Egypt and then (having made this prophetic promise already in the Brit Beyn HaBetarim) out again. This God had shown that His power was greater than any mighty earthly ruler's, His power was greater than all other gods of Egypt.

 So a new and substitute ritual was created. No longer able to bring a lamb to sacrifice at the holy altar, the lamb was now to be roasted and eaten at home, and the thin matzah was eaten at home and the experience of packing and getting ready to leave was practiced at home. (As also the practice – albeit this is a contradiction! - of reclining in relaxed luxury while reading and eating.) A bone or an egg acted as reminders of how things used to be done in temple times but although they were on the Seder plate they were no longer at the heart of the ritual. Each and every Israelite was to feel as though he himself had been there and had experienced this. He had to taste and touch and feel and sing and hear all the elements of this Liberation on the basis that, if it could happen then, it could still happen now, and maybe next year one could indeed celebrate again in Jerusalem.

 The one who feels out of it, who asks the wrong question, who distances himself, is to be rebuked and – well, not excluded but compelled to conform. Maybe THEN he would not have been redeemed, but NOW he is nevertheless a part of the community. He does not leave the Seder table or the room...... He sits there and has to listen as the leader explains patiently why it is that we are celebrating, explains this even to the simple child and even to those who are too shy or scared or inarticulate to ask the right questions. Questions – are important. Questions – are allowed. We have to discuss with each other whether the correct Signs are truly visible and the Haggadah adds as a heavy punch the fact that even famous rabbis could get it wrong, could be influenced or overruled by their own students and after an entire night of debate and argument at B'nei Berak they could accept that the Dawn of the New Era had come even when – as they found out to their cost – this was incorrect. Rabbi Akiva himself paid the ultimate price and yet, as recounted in the Talmud, refused to let this destroy his faith in God. His problem was that he had placed his faith mistakenly also in Shimon Bar-Kochba. The Unity of God remained for him the essential basis for his existence even at the time of (painful) death. The Haggadah however deliberately excludes any mention of Moses as a human redeemer and focusses solely on God as the only Power in the Universe. God had plans, God has had influence on our history and where we wandered, God directed the conflict with Pharaoh, God led us through the Sea, it is God's angel who visits the Egyptians and God's mighty arm and hand that inflict destruction on the enemies of the Israelites. We sing the Hallel Psalms to God. (I am referring now to the central ritual Seder texts, not to any later songs added to keep the children happy!)

 

 Third – Readings. A relevant addition here could be the Haftarah read on the Shabbat that (normally) falls within the week of Pessach. Chol HaMo'ed. From Ezekiel chapter 37, it describes dry bones lying unburied in a valley after some battle, following which there was nobody left even to gather and bur y the corpses with any degree of respect. BUT – It is in God's power to revive these bones, to clad them once more with sinews and muscles and flesh and turn them into living (and fighting) men again.  Other Haftarot, for example from Isaiah, try to provide hope as well.

 

 Fourth - The Oral Traditions. One could argue that the creation of the rabbinic discursive tradition as edited and gathered in first the Mishnah and then the Gemara but also the Tosafot and also the extra Baraitot not initially included and also the various Midrashim place the concept of Discussion at the forefront. There is no central, single agreed Dogma now as in the sense of the Written Torah, the Torah sheBichtav; And there is no single centralised authority to impose this. Now there is Torah sheBe'al Peh, Torah based on what people say, and whether one accepts it. Whether in the Land of Israel or even in Babylon. (Babylon, the Talmud Bavli, now becomes a positive term rather than ´what it was formerly, a land of Exile where one sat at the river and wept.) Anybody with some intelligence and the ability to learn, to read and write and discuss, could rise to major heights in the communities; one need no longer be born into a Levitical family line. Individual learning and piety would now count instead of ''yichus''. Without a monarchy or a civil administration or an army the Rabbis were able to create a new form of society, one based upon ethical and moral and social responsibilities of all members, on acceptance of some basic religious concepts and communal solidarity but allowing a degree of freedom in how these were all interpreted.

 

 And Fifth: The Omer....? In the Torah (Leviticus 23, repeated in Deuteronomy 16) there is a strange instruction to count the days after Pessach (it is even unclear as to when one should start counting and this alone led already to debate.) After forty-nine days, seven weeks, during which on each day the Israelites (but not each individual one) brought a sheaf of new grain to the Temple, the fifteth Day would be celebrated as a Festival closing this period – hence the name 'Atzeret', Closure. But how could this be continued in a period when there was no altar, no Temple and -just as significant – no Land which would bear the fruits? No grain to harvest? The Rabbis turned these three Pilgrim Festivals into something quite different, transformed. The Spring harvest – Pessach - became instead the commemoration of Freedom; the Summer harvest and Festival – Shavuot – became instead the Festival of Responsibility. The Autumn harvest and Festival – Sukkot – became instead the Festival of Gratitude. Gratitude that we had somewhere to live; That we had a Land; Gratitude for fertility. At the end we even show joy and gratitude that we have the Torah, though Shavuot itself became the commemoration of the Revelation on Mount Sinai, the revelation of a system of laws that was to bind us together. Some of the laws – ritual and agricultural – were no longer of direct relevance in the new circumstances but the concepts behind them remained important.

 The period between Pessach and Shavuot was therefore a period of seven weeks in which formerly the farmers in the Land would prepare for the summer harvest and the first-fruits of barley. But now – the emphasis has been changed onto counting as a ritual act in itself and the period has been used also as a way of reminding us of the catastrophes of the past. Each evening one is meant to recite a blessing concerning the 'Sefirat HaOmer' and announce that this is the such-and-such day making so-and-so many weeks and days.


 Though it is never made clear, it would seem that the story in the Haggadah is a way of telling us that the revolt of the young radical men, the ''students of Akiva', began on Pessach. This would have been appropriate, just as Christianity is based on the idea that it was at Pessach time that the wandering preacher from Nazareth came to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of freedom. He was (it seems from what has been salvaged of his teachings) offering a form of spiritual liberation – even if the Romans and others misinterpreted the message – whereas Bar-Kochba was offering a political freedom from the Roman legions and occupation. Pessach as a symbolic date.

 But you need more than faith to fight Roman legions and the ''students of Akiva'' lost one battle and skirmish after another, culminating in a major defeat at Bittir in the Nahal Soreq west of Jerusalem. Perhaps the landscape was indeed left scattered with the whitening bones of the fighters, picked over by the carrion birds and the foxes of the neighbourhood..... The Talmud refers merely enigmatically to a 'plague' that carried away thousands of healthy young men. Akiva himself was martyred publicly in a Roman Circus – the grisly details of how he was skinned alive are in the Talmud, Berachot 61b. It is, amongst other things, an interesting contrast between the cruelty of the 'civilised Romans' and the relative speed and mercy of traditional Jewish methods of execution....

 It is possible that on the thirty-third day of this terrible period a victory of some sort was won, something that remained ingrained in the memories of that generation as an exception, a day one could focus upon as something positive whereas the rest of the news swas simply bad, bad, bad..... and so the 33rd Day (represented by the letters 'Lamed-Gimmel' in the Hebrew designation) became an exception but for the rest it was a time of mourning, a time of bad memories and nightmares. Just like now. How could one celebrate a wedding in this time? Hold parties? Even have a haircut or undertake some other sign of joy? To let the hair and the beard grow was a sign of mourning.

 If we think back to the last big war of the 20th century there was a period of some six years – 2,077 days according to one count, in which on average 1,000 people died EVERY HOUR. (100 of these being German soldiers.) And yet we think to specific dates, to a D-Day or a VE or a VJ Liberation Day and the rest just falls into a dark grey background. Of course it is impossible to mourn for the whole five or six years in memory of this, but we think back with a feeling of sadness at the waste and the suffering and the pointlessness of it all..... If one man had not been followed as a false Messiah by his nation, the whole thing could have perhaps been avoided. This is a lesson that needs to be re-learned every generation. The consequences of that war, the millions of losses, the millions of bereaved and of destroyed families, the changed borders and the changed relationships (for example, the Cold War or the awareness that we now have the ability, like God, to wipe out two cities with two bombs....) remain with us still. A trauma.

 The Omer is our method. A period of semi-mourning, seven weeks, and culminating in a reaffirmation of the Torah and the revelation and the experience of Sinai that binds us together not as humans, not as Abrahamites but as Jews. We see how many now count the days from October 7th. - horrifyingly, it is coming closer to 300 and yet there are still hostages being kept in inhuman conditions and there are still soldiers, now almost 300, falling in the battle to retrieve them. We cannot yet tell where this period will lead to nor how long it might still last and an only hope and pray that the end might come sooner rather than later. But for years to come there will me multitudes of Yahrzeit commemorations within this period, now spread over so much of a year, for those who were slaughtered, butchered or fell in battle.

Lag BaOmer this year will be not 33 but 233 Days - which is Thirty-Three Weeks and Two Days. May the time come soon when we can cease counting....

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild. Berlin 2024




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