An encounter with the Dalai Lama
This week's portion: fix

Making our offerings count (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.

In this week's Torah portion, Emor, we read a series of instructions pertaining to grain-offerings. When the Israelites enter the land, they are instructed to bring the first sheaf of harvest to the priest, to be elevated before Adonai. Then begins a period of counting:

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering — the day after the sabbath — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week — fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.

We're in such a period of counting even now. From Pesach to Shavuot, the festival of our liberation to the festival of God's revelation, we count seven times seven weeks. On the fiftieth day our ancestors brought grain to the Temple in Jerusalem. Because we are no longer grain farmers, and no longer operating in the old sacrificial paradigm, we bring the offering of our open hearts to a meeting with God wherever in the world (wherever in all the worlds) we are.

The Torah's fifty days between one grain-offering and another are thus reconfigured. With a neat twist, we take the discipline of counting and the number of days the text ordains, and read them in a way we can use. The practice of counting the Omer ties the two festivals together. By counting days we keep ourselves mindful of how much time has elapsed since our exhilarating break from the Narrows -- and how little time remains to prepare ourselves to receive eternal wisdom in the moment, at once personal and communal, of our covenant with God.

Count your blessings. Make every day count. We're counting on you. Count the cost. Does that count? Take this into account. Make a full accounting of yourself. Account for something. In these ways and more we tell ourselves, and each other, to keep track, to remember what matters, to make something matter for ourselves. Torah, too, holds this counting in high regard.

And what are we to count? Seven times seven days, a Shabbat of weeks. As Shabbat is the culmination of each week's work, a joyful and prayerful participation in holy rest, so the fiftieth day at the end of our counting is sanctified and work-free. "On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations," Torah tells us. "This is a law for all time in all your settlements, throughout the ages." For all time, in all places where we dwell. Torah acknowledges that our sanctifying practices have relevance beyond their ties to a particular space or time. This counting is important, no matter where or when or how we live.

Counting the Omer links freedom with covenant. We are freed not only from, but also toward; in relationship with the infinite and eternal Source of All that Is, our freedom reaches its fullest expression. And that relationship calls us to take action. Covenant implies responsibility, toward God and toward each other.

The practice of counting the days of burgeoning spring grain takes on new meaning in a post-agricultural and post-sacrificial age...but some of the words of parashat Emor ring as true now as they ever have, requiring no reinterpretation:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.

This mitzvah, this connective obligation, is a major one. As this post notes, the commandment to leave the gleanings of our fields for the hungry is one of the few mitzvot the sages of the Talmud deemed necessary for a potential convert to learn in order to become a Jew. Torah commands us to mark the passing of these fifty days -- and it also commands us to curb our greed so that others may live. How would the Counting of the Omer be different if we took these fifty days as a special time for living out this commandment from parashat Emor?

Most of us no longer harvest our own food, but we can enact this commandment in our own time nonetheless. Caretaker Farm, the CSA to which I belong, donates vegetables to the Berkshire Food Project every week. Most synagogues collect dried and canned foods for distribution to food pantries in their towns. We can give tzedakah to soup kitchens and to Mazon...

May the words of this week's Torah portion spur us to sanctify not only the passage of time between liberation and revelation, but also the growth and fruitfulness (metaphoric and literal) that makes our transformation possible. When we ensure that the poor and the stranger are fed, we prove ourselves to merit the Torah that is our inheritance.