Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Omer- Our chance to change the World

Shabbat Pesach Day 8
Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17, Numbers 28:25 

This Shabbat is the last day of Passover. We can put aside (or throw out) any remaining matzah and return to our everyday lives. But can we really? Is holiday truly finished? Yes and no. Yes, Passover is finished here in the diaspora after 8 days. But no, it actually isn’t finished because Passover is inextricably linked to our next big holiday, Shavuot, through the counting of the Omer.  We begin counting the Omer (originally sheaves of wheat from the beginning of the harvest, see Lev. 23:15) on the second night of Passover. We continue counting for a total of 49 days, until we reach Shavuot, the 50th day. The Omer is a period of semi-mourning but it is also a period where we celebrate wonderful things such as the founding of the State of Israel. 

A pilgrimage to offer the first fruits to God in the Temple in Jerusalem distinguishes all three of the Pilgrimage Festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot). These holidays highlight Judaism’s big 3– Torah, God and Israel.  We remember that if were not for God we would still be slaves in Egypt, if it were not for God we would not have the holy words of Torah as an exemplar of life, and if it were not for God we would not have the land of Israel as our spiritual and physical homeland.  

Passover is unique of the three because we can all get behind it no matter where we land on the Jewish spectrum.  We are all enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free. We can reenact the story for our children and/or we can dig deep inside and consider what it really means to be free and how we act out this message in our daily lives. Passover is a uniquely Jewish holiday. We Jews were enslaved and now we are free to live lives as part of a Jewish nation.  

Then comes the Omer on the second night of Passover. What are we counting? We are counting up to the intellectual, spiritual and ultimately action oriented places within ourselves to be the people who are continually receiving the Torah and then take its teachings to better ourselves and the world through our actions.  Fifty days to count, fifty days to contemplate, fifty days to formulate how we will actualize the godliness within ourselves to repair the world.

As Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan noted, we live in multiple civilizations. This teaches me that we cannot afford to stop at the pshat, the surface level of our holidays, observances and teaching.  We must take our particularist perspective and broaden it to the universal. We were strangers, we were slaves and now others are strangers, others are slaves. It’s our responsibility as both Jews and citizens of the World to make sure that no one must live in slavery, that everyone is free.  

When my children were young I used to sing them lullabies, usually old Hebrew songs and protest songs from the 60s. One of my favorites was Medgar Evers Lullaby by Judy Collins. It is about injustice and formatted as a message from the murdered Medgar Evers to his son. The final verse always hits home to me: 
“What will you do, son, when you are a man? Will you learn to live lonely and hate all you can? Will you try to be happy and try not to see, That all men are slaves 'til their brothers are free.”

May we see the day, speedily and in our time, that slavery is banished and that all people are free.