Parashat Hashavua for Behar/Bechukotai
Rabbi Nicole Roberts
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW
“The land shall yield its fruit, you shall eat your fill, and you shall dwell upon it in security” (Lev. 25:19). And just like that, our parasha encapsulates the eternal Jewish dream in a single verse! A generous land that yields bounty, a land of safety, a place where we can thrive as a people and live out our values – yet in every age, the dream has proven elusive, thwarted by hostility. In ancient agricultural times, the elements—“scorching heat, blasting winds, and noxious dews” [i]—posed a hostile threat to crops. In later times, after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, we were subject to oppression in or cast into exile from our land by hostile regimes. In modern times, we have been targets of hostile terror and antisemitic attacks, both in our homeland and lands we’ve chosen to call home. And this year, we have faced invisible enemies hostile to our way of life, including climate change and Covid-19. The eternal dream expressed in our parasha remains just that: a dream we still pursue.
Ah, but “If you will it, it is no dream!” counters Theodore Herzl, father of modern Zionism. There are actions we can take, even in a hostile universe, to attain our dream. And Herzl’s faith in human empowerment would not have been altogether foreign to the sages of old. They, too, preached a perspective of personal empowerment in the face of hostile forces, seen and unseen.
The sages tell of a time when, at the start of the 49-day Omer period, the Israelites would bring to the Temple a measure of grain as an offering to God. The sheaves would be waved in every direction—not unlike the practice at Sukkot, also a time of harvest, when we “take up” the four species and wave the lulav cluster in six directions. The “waving” of sheaves at the start of the Omer period, Midrash teaches, was to ward off the harsh elements that might come and undo all the good brought by the rains during the rainy season (before Pesach). We mustn’t think that we no longer needed God, just because the rains had come. The environment was inherently hostile, they believed, and God’s genius was needed in order to maintain the delicate balance that allowed for growth of crops and a healthy harvest. Our offering was an acknowledgement that we still depended on God to stave off “scorching heat, blasting winds, and noxious dews,” but also a way for God to assess just what mix of environmental elements was needed to provide a harvest that could sustain us. Midrash depicts God saying to the Israelites, “I am your Cook, the One who spices your food. Let Me taste the dish prepared for you, that I may know what is needed [for its seasoning].” [ii] How delicious to imagine our offering, picked by our human hands, placed on the tip of God’s wooden tasting spoon, helping God to tweak a life sustaining recipe for the people!
The sages, however, also lived in an era when physical offerings could no longer be brought to a shared location. After the destruction of the Temple, we brought, instead, the “offerings of our lips” [iii] —our prayers. And when hostile forces oppressed or exiled us, the sages preached that our prayers—our connection to God—would uproot those forces. The environment around us was still hostile as ever, but the enemy had changed, and the Omer offering had to change too. The sages taught, “Abraham took Nimrod’s power away not with a weapon nor shield, but with prayer and supplications to God.” Likewise, Moses and Aaron “took Pharaoh’s power away…with prayer and supplications to God.” Likewise, Devorah and Barak in the time of Sisera, Isaiah and Hezekiah in the time of Sennacherib, Mordecai and Esther in the time of Haman, [iv] and—the sages imply—so would it be in their day and in every generation to come. The counting of the Omer, along with the b’rachah (blessing) that precedes it, has become our daily offering to God. A form of prayer and supplication, it keeps us connected to God and acknowledges God’s sovereignty over the earth and over our adversaries, seen and unseen.
Like prayer, counting the Omer “may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city,” [v] but perhaps it still lets God know what “seasoning” is needed desperately in our world to make it sustaining. Perhaps it reminds us each day that we are empowered to do our bit in staving off harsh, threatening, damaging winds. Perhaps it still helps us will a dream into being.
[i] Pesikta d’Rav Kahana (PRK), Piska 8:1 (5thcentury)
[iii] Hosea 14:3
[iv] PRK, Piska 8:2
[v ] Mishkan T’filah, World Union for Progressive Judaism Edition: A Progressive Siddur, ed. Elyse D. Frishman and the World Union Edition Editorial Team, New York: CCAR Press 2010, 165.