Parashat Emor – Erev Shabbat 8 May 2020
Week of 3-9 May 2020
Torah portion: Leviticus 21:1-24:23 Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Theme: “You shall count off seven weeks” (Lev 23:15)
In this week’s portion, we are introduced to “counting the omer”. According to The Jewish Book of Why, this mitzvah “seems to have been introduced to establish a connection between Passover and Shavuot – holidays separated by seven full weeks. Passover marked the beginning of the grain harvest. The first crop (barley) was cut on Passover and a small amount (an omer) was brought to the Temple as a sacrifice on the second day of the holiday. For the next forty-nine days, each day was marked off (counted), and this period became known as sefira (“the counting”). The fiftieth day was Shavuot, on which the next crop (wheat) was harvested and brought to the Temple (Kolatch, 197-8). The ritual count takes place at prayers in the evening and goes like this, using 7 May 2020 as an example: “Today is the twenty-ninth day, which is four weeks and one day of the Omer.”
The Greek name for Shavuot is Pentecost which simply means “The Fiftieth Day”. There is scholarly dispute as to whether by the time of the Shavuot festival described in Acts 2, Shavuot had already come to be considered as the anniversary of the giving of the Law on Sinai. The Christian church has often used this identification of Shavuot with Sinai to describe the Christian Pentecost as about heart-warming Love and the Jewish Pentecost as about terrifying Law. In the spirit of the Ratisbonne-Bat Kol Institute, let us learn a deeper appreciation of “our” Pentecostfrom the practice of counting the omer – on the face of it, a pretty dull ritual.
In the case of this ritual, as with others, it is not just what is done, but the spirit in which it is done. Nehama Leibowitz (220) gives us this quotation from the Sefer Ha-hinukh, a 13th-century work which discusses each of the 613 mitzvot: “… we were commanded to count from the second day of Pesach to the day of the giving of the Torah, to give expression to our deepest and inmost yearnings for the arrival of this day ‘as a slave panteth for the shade.’ The act of counting the days demonstrates that man’s whole desires and attention are devoted to waiting for the time to draw nearer.”
The Giving of the Torah and the Descent of the Spirit happened centuries ago – yet year after we are blessed with the opportunity to look “forward” to these ancient events and welcome them anew into our lives, to long for them like a hot and weary slave (Job 7:2). If a more cheerful analogy is preferred – think of a child counting the number of “sleeps” until Christmas morning comes.
We understand Pentecost as the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to His followers: “I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Paraclete, to be with you forever.” (John14:16) The Greek word Paraclete literally means “one who stands beside you” – a helper, a supporter, a comforter. (One of the hard things about life during the pandemic is that we cannot attend funerals and literally “stand beside” those who mourn.) Shavuot and Pentecost both celebrate gifts from God, gifts that offer us wisdom, and strength and comfort.
For Reflection and Discussion: There are still about three weeks until Shavuot and Pentecost. What practice(s) might you adopt to count the days and to increase your longing for the days to arrive?
Bibliography: Kolatch, A. J. The Jewish Book of Why (New York, 2003); Leibowitz, N. Studies in Vayikra (Jerusalem, 1980); thanks to chabad.org/holidays for the example of the count.