Changing the World While Counting the Omer

This Shabbat is the last day of Passover (Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 and Numbers 28:25), and we can put aside (or throw out) any remaining matzoh and  return to our everyday lives. But can we really? Is the holiday truly finished? Yes, Passover is finished here in the diaspora after eight days, but it actually isn’t finished because Passover is inextricably linked to our next big holiday, Shavuot, through the counting of the Omer.

We began 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 when we celebrate the founding of the State of Israel.

On Passover, we are enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free.

 

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 three — Torah, God and Israel.  We  remember that if it 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.

On Passover, we are enjoined to relive the story of our slavery as if we ourselves had been slaves and are now free.

Then comes the Omer on the second night. 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, 50 days to contemplate, 50 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 people of the world to make sure that no one lives in  slavery, that everyone is free.

Rabbah Arlene Berger is the spiritual leader of the Olney, Md., Kehila.

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