Parshat Emor 2018
Our problem with the book of Vayikra, the book of the priests as it is sometimes called, is that the subjects seem so removed from our reality. Sacrifices, priestly ceremonies, ritual purity and impurity. Last week’s parsha offered a whole lot of commandments intended to “make us holy”, in many cases by having US differentiate between the holy and secular, the pure and impure, and between what is right and what is wrong in human relations.
In today’s parsha we continue to talk about procedures, but with an emphasis on two areas of reference. Time and place.
We’ve been told about Shabbat several times in the book of Shmot. We’ve received specifics about what we can and can’t do on that holy day. But here, in our parsha, we are given the whole list of holy days with their importance to us. This is, in essence, the framework of our year, as though it follows the famous planning dictum: When you start to plan, schedule your rest periods first, and then work around them.
That’s what we have here. We have Pesach with its matza. We have the seven-week period from Pesach to Shavuot – and I’ll return to that shortly. We have Shavuot, we have Memorial Day, what we call Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur and finally, Succoth, to mark the end of the agricultural year. That’s your Shabbat and those are your holidays, Israel. Now work around them.
And we do. We know that Shabbat and the holidays will require special preparation and special treatment. We look forward to these days as high points that give us the strength to continue in the rut of routine.
But the Torah doesn’t stop there. Its concern for the welfare of the deprived members of society has been evident many times before, and again, as Rabbi Elliot Kukla points out, in the middle of the description of the period of the omer (which is now) – we are told: When you reap the produce of your fields, do not reap the corners of your fields, and do not pick up the sheaves that drop during the reaping. They are for the stranger (or convert), the orphan and the widow – the poor of your community. We have here a manifesto that would do a socialist party proud.
Let’s go back for a moment to the period we are in now, the counting of the Omer. What is it all about? At the start of this period we bring a grain offering, consisting of a measure of barley, called an “omer.” Fifty days later, at the end of the period, on the holiday of Shavuot, we bring another grain offering, called the two loaves, made of wheat.
In other words, this is an agricultural event, perhaps giving thanks for two reaping periods. Some of you are saying to yourselves, No, that’s not the only thing. It’s a time of sadness.
To which we would have to say, No, it is – it WAS – an agricultural event. But not only. As Rabbi Shimon Felix points out, leave it to the rabbis to add spiritual meaning. Reading the text they realized that the 50 day period more or less corresponded to the time mentioned in the Torah between the exodus and the giving of the Torah. And voila, Shavuot became the holiday of the giving of the Torah.
What happened next is not entirely clear, and the sources do not enable a conclusive determination of the factual basis for today’s observance of the omer period.
In 135 CE, there was an uprising against the Romans led spiritually by the famous Rabbi Akiva and militarily by a man called Bar-Kochba (the son of a star) by his admirers, and Bar Koziba (the son of the deceiver) by his detractors. Some thought he was the Messiah, others thought he was a dangerous imposter.
According to the Talmud, the midrash, the folklore, during the seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot, 22,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students were slaughtered by the Romans. The rabbis attributed their deaths to their lack of respect for one another. That’s the moral the rabbis wanted to teach. More historically oriented scholars suggest that these students died as fighters who fought in the rebellion against Rome. Which can prove either that yeshiva bochurs CAN fight, and/or that they shouldn’t because they are not so good at it. (Look how many died).
Thus the omer period became one of mourning to this day, despite the addition of Yom Haatzmaut and Jerusalem day to lighten the mood in modern times.
But here’s another possible explanation for why the omer period changed from one of relative agricultural joy to shaveless, humorless mourning.
Prof. Avigdor Shinan, prof. emeritus of Hebrew Lit at Hebrew University, drew parallel lines between the days of feasting and fasting of the Jews and Christians, after Christianity gained popularity.
Here’s what he found. Lent, a period of Christian mourning and sadness, begins 40 days before Easter. In direct parallel, the 40 days before Pesach include the month of Adar (with Purim) which, as we know, ushers in joy, and Pesach.
After Easter the Christians count 50 days until Pentecost when the holy spirit descended on the disciples of Christ. These are their days of joy and celebration.
We have the omer period. Prof. Shinan contends that when one religion celebrates the other has to be sad, and vice versa. After all, we don’t want anyone thinking we are celebrating because of THEM. So we arrange our calendar to ensure that our practices are the opposite of theirs.
Which is true? All? None? Your choice. Perhaps you can discuss it over the Lag Ba’omer bonfire on Wednesday night.
NOTE BEFORE READING THE TORAH:
The parsha deals with the holiness of the Cohanim, whose duty it is to serve in the Temple. The laws of purity and impurity apply to them more stringently than to the people. And the High Priest has the most stringent rules of all. He is not allowed to come in contact with impurity of any type at any time, even when they are off duty. Ariel Seri-Levy, who points this out, offers the idea that high officials are held to a higher standard at all times, even when they are not engaged in official business.