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The twenty ninth day of the Omer

From the Rabbi for Kehillah May 2014:

By the time you read this Pesach will be a memory – the story of the exodus from Egypt told once again in our homes and in the synagogue, the games we play at the seder table from the traditional search for afikomen to the more modern use of finger puppets, plague masks, table tennis balls doubling as hail stones and the jumping frogs from toyshops will be recollected in calmer mode. We are now in the omer period, a strange time of semi mourning and of counting the days, until the next festival, intimately connected to Pesach in the biblical text: Shavuot.

Of the three harvest festivals in the Jewish year, Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, when adult male Jews were required to bring their produce in thanksgiving to the Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot is possibly the hardest to comprehend, and yet there is a case to be made it is the most important of our festival days.

Shavuot falls seven weeks (a week of weeks, hence the name Shavuot which means ‘weeks’) after the second night of Pesach – and we begin to count at the second seder in a ritual formula recited each night. It was not given a date in bible, but instead we are told:

And ye shall count from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even to the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall present a new meal-offering to God.” : (Leviticus 23:15,16)

The new grains of the wheat harvest were brought to the Temple on Shavuot. The period between Pesach and Shavuot saw the offering of the older barley harvest- an omer (sheaf) of grain every day. The process built up anticipation and created a sense of connection between the harvests and the festivals, so that the agricultural themes of waiting, hoping, depending on God for food were well established among the people. By the time the Temple and its ritual affirming the connection of people and God to the land were only memories, the connection between Pesach and Shavuot was in our DNA. From being harvest festivals they became much more. building on the connection between Pesach and freedom from slavery, and the biblical account of receiving Torah at Sinai some short weeks later, the period of the omer was designated as the period between leaving Egypt and becoming a covenanted people of God with the Torah as our legal document. The time became a period of spiritual preparation and readying ourselves for meeting God, and rabbinic Judaism takes advantage of the connection and the build-up to remind us that there is no point in the exodus without what happened at Sinai: put in less theological terms, “There is no point in our freedom if we do not use it to make the world a better place.”

So we spend the omer period preparing ourselves for our divine encounter; learning about what our freedom means, what it gives us, what responsibilities we acquire with it. And this is my challenge and question to you. At seder we speak about freedom, and one of the discussions we have is about our own freedom- what we learned in the year just gone about the freedoms we have achieved or enjoy in our own life. We speak about the way we are living now, how we are working to develop the freedom of others, be it in the buying of Fairtrade goods, of free-range eggs, of clothes not mass produced by child labour in the less developed world; or be it about engaging in political action, learning more about the world around us, targeting our charitable donations to organisations that maximise the freedom of the recipients.

At Shavuot we are expected to have made our plans, to have decided what we will do in the coming year and be engaging with the issues.

Shavuot is arguably the most important festival of the year because it now commemorates the agreement we made with God, the time that God gave us Torah and the ongoing receiving/ developing of Torah that is our responsibility. Rabbinic Judaism gave us one more instrument in our practise of responsible freedom to work with God to enhance the world. In the story of the oven of Achnai (Talmud Baba Metzia 59b) we read:

If a man made an oven out of separate coils..such an oven, R. Eliezer declared, is not susceptible to defilement, while the sages declared it susceptible…R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but the Sages did not accept any of them. Finally he said to them: "If the Halachah (religious law) is in accordance with me, let this carob tree prove it!" the carob tree immediately uprooted itself and moved one hundred cubits.. from its place. "No proof can be brought from a carob tree," they retorted.

So he said to them "If the Halachah agrees with me, let this stream prove it!" and the stream flowed backward. "No proof can be brought from a stream," they said. Again he urged, "If the Halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the house of study prove it!" Sure enough, the walls tilted as if to fall. But R. Joshua, rebuked the walls, saying, ".. what right have you to interfere?" …

Again R. Eliezer then said to the Sages, "If the Halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven." Sure enough, a divine voice cried out, "Why do you dispute with R. Eliezer, with whom the Halachah always agrees?" R. Joshua stood up and protested: "The Torah is not in heaven!" (Deut. 30:12). We pay no attention to a divine voice because long ago at Mount Sinai You wrote in your Torah at Mount Sinai, `After the majority must one incline'. (Ex. 23:2)"

The story teaches us that the right to interpret Torah lies not with God but with us, that the responsibility for bringing the word of God into the world is ours, the lessons of equality, of human dignity, of responsibility for each other are ours to enact. We prepare during the Omer period to take this responsibility on. And from Shavuot we must be ready to take on the work of repairing the world for the coming year.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild


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