Sermon: On the Omer

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 20 April 2013

Whenever I have been entrusted with the wellbeing of our garden it has not ended well – months of neglect have, inevitably, been followed by days spent hacking back a wild jungle.
No flowers – definitely no vegetables – can grow under my supervision.

And even though I grew up pretty much in the countryside – with a view of cows and tractors from my bedroom window, so that, bizarrely, the smell of manure makes me smile the smile of childhood, I also couldn’t tell you much about the agricultural process.

To put it simply, I am not a man of the soil.
A man of books, maybe.
A man of the city.
But not a man in touch with the earth, with the cycles of the harvest.

And yet, each evening at this time of year, for some reason, I transport myself back to the farmers’ fields of Ancient Israel with the ritual of the Omer – literally the word means a sheaf – referring to the sheaves of grain brought to the temple and waved by the priest at the start of the counting.

I-we, we count the days – 2,500 years later, as far from a field, socially, as it is possible to be – we count the days of ancient harvest – we count the time between the agricultural festivals of Pesach and Shavuot – between the start of the barley harvest and the wheat harvest.  We count 50 days of hard agricultural labour, here in the warmth and urban privilege of Finchley and Golder’s Green.

It is, on one level, really rather odd.
Why retain a practice that comes from such an alien context – why hold onto the religious practice of ancient farmers in a modern city religion?

Interestingly, we are not the first generation to face such a challenge.
This aspect of the Omer was odd, too, to the urban sages of early rabbinic Judaism.
Their response was to downplay the agricultural – to overlay the period with other ideas not found in the Torah.  They emphasized the connection between this period and the Exodus narrative – the period between Pesach and Shavuot becomes, not a time spent working the fields between Pilgrim festivals, but the re-enactment of the walk from redemption to revelation – Shavuot becomes not a harvest festival, but the celebration of Sinai.

They also connected the Omer to their own historical context, giving it a moral message for their time through new narratives – so the Talmud contains a famous story of Akiva, his students and this period.  We are told that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and all of them died in between Pesach and Shavuot because they did not conduct themselves with respect towards one another.
The Omer thus becomes a period of mourning and judgement in the lives of scholars, not of farmers.

As they did in other areas of Jewish life, as they transformed our practices from the priestly cult of an ancient tribal people to the religion we now have, the sages provided new meanings to replace ones they no longer found to be resonant.

And that could be our practice, too.  It would be a perfectly legitimate approach.
We, too, could downplay the agricultural.  But we don’t.
Indeed, in the case of this community as you can see behind me, we up-play (though that is not a word) the agricultural.  It is our tradition that each day as we count the omer we add a single ear of grain to re-enact the accumulation of the harvest that would have been taking place at this time for our ancestors – a tradition that we were gifted from the Reform Jewish Community in Praetoria.

Why would we emphasise the odd?
There are a number of reasons.

The first is that without transporting ourselves back to those fields of our rural forefathers we can never really understand what we do.  Our lives and practices as Jews have been shaped and evolved over many thousands of years, acquiring new practices, new emphases, new rituals through different contexts – Ancient Israel to Diaspora; farm to city; servitude and persecution to emancipation and equality; ethnicity to religion; dark ages to enlightenment.
Only if we unpack this journey, deconstruct it can we then build it back up with stronger foundations.

Our festival cycle is more secure in our lives for being understood, for not being arbitrary.  The core pilgrim festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – have at their heart the practices of ancient Israel’s farming communities, if we overlay the ancient agricultural cycle and our modern religious practice they align – and we should acknowledge that root even as we give our calendar new layers of symbolism.
We need, as it were, to connect the cheesecake eating of Shavuot with the cheese rolling of Gloucestershire – probably both, in origin, a reflection of the peaks and flows of dairy farming – to fully understand our own practice.

Without doing so we never really understand why we do what we do – which, as rational moderns, is the only way our Judaism can survive.
But nor can we access the potential depth of religious truth and feeling at their heart.  Why is the period of the Omer one of mourning?  Not because of the students of Rabbi Akiva – or not that alone – but also because if you are a farmer, harvest time is the most important and the most precarious of periods – a genuine period of anxiety and judgement.  The weather can destroy not just your crop, but your ability to survive.
Only if we connect ourselves to a time when the whole community was on edge – waiting to see whether this would be a year of want or of plenty – only then do we understand the true spiritual dimension of the Omer – our own transience, our own dependence on the earth – ideas so unfamiliar to modern city dwellers, but familiar to modern farmers still.

The Omer reflects the same emotional and spiritual reality as the pictures of sheep farmers around this country whose livelihood has been devastated by the late heavy snow.

Perhaps most importantly, it is also only by understanding the roots of our practice as Jews that we understand the roots of our responsibilities as Jews.
In this week’s parashah we find a classic example of the way in which Ancient Israelite ethics reflected their agricultural lives: “When you reap the harvest of your land”, we are told “you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger”.
Or, as this law is restated in Deuteronomy: When you reap the harvest in your field – v’shachachta omer b’sadeh – and you forget a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, in order that the Eternal your God may bless you in all your undertakings.”
Harvest equals responsibility.  It is because God gives us grain at our harvests, because of this period in the annual cycle of our Jewish lives, that we have responsibilities for those around us – as a statement of gratitude – our dependence on the earth reflected in our responsibility to those dependent on us.

So why am I standing in front of a vase full of grain?  Our festival cycle is so much more real, less arbitrary, more grounded, if we see the agricultural cycle that lies behind it.  Our Jewish lives, and our Jewish ethics, are so much richer for being informed by the link to the lives and ethics of those who came before us.

I’m no gardener, I could tell you next to nothing about the agricultural process.
But for these 50 days – if we are to be Jews then we are also to be farmers