Sermon: Shabbat B’har – B’chukkotai

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 20 May 2017

Last Sunday I was sitting with my feet up, nary a care in the world, nothing in my diary to do, a day where the most strenuous activity was turning the pages of the Sunday paper. Hey ho, it’s a hard life.

So spare a thought for many of my Orthodox colleagues, who, by contrast, were probably working their socks off because it was Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of that 7-week period in the Jewish calendar called the Omer. Beginning on the night of second day Pesach, each day has been literally ‘numbered,’ spelling out how many weeks and days have passed and where we are on this 49 day journey, ending on the eve of the festival of Shavuot, just 10 days away now. In traditional practice the Omer is regarded as a period of semi-mourning and since Pesach, no weddings have taken place, celebration at Bar/Batmitzvah parties has been muted and so on. That’s why those rabbis were likely to have been rushing from chuppah to chuppah last Sunday! What happens after Lag b’Omer varies: some parts of the Jewish world will now celebrate marriages through to Shavuot; for others, Lag b’Omer is the only day in these 7 weeks when a chuppah can take place.

Shavuot falls on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan. The Torah gives us dates for all the festivals – except for Shavuot. So the only way we know it’s on 6th Sivan is because of those 49 days from second night Pesach – whose date we do know.

But it’s by no means clear from what date we should be counting. The instruction to count was, in fact, in last Shabbat’s Torah reading. There it said simply – or maybe complicatedly – “…you shall count seven weeks from ‘mimochorat hashabbat’ the day after the sabbath of Pesach” (Leviticus 23:16.) 7 weeks after the barley harvest, you were to bring an offering of new grain to the Temple, in the form of 2 loaves. ‘Complicatedly’ because 2000 years ago there were problems with just what did ‘the day after the sabbath of Pesach’ actually mean? Yet surely it’s obvious? Pesach is a 7-day festival, so there’s always going to be a Shabbat somewhere in it. So ’the day after the sabbath’ means Sunday. Start your count on the Sunday and 7 weeks later you come to Shavuot. What’s the problem? But depending on which day of the week Pesach began, the sabbath of Pesach could fall on any day from the 3rd to the 7th.

Jewish tradition, however, understood the ‘sabbath of Pesach’ as the first day of Pesach and hence our practice of starting to count the Omer on the second day of Pesach. This may seem just a typical bit of rabbinic pedantry but understanding ‘shabbat’ as ‘yom tov,’ and therefore 1st day Pesach was anything but rabbinic vagary. It meant that you always started counting on the day after Pesach began – which kept Pesach and Shavuot in close alignment. And once you’ve established that you start counting on the second day of Pesach you have also fixed the date of Shavuot, 49 days later, as 6th Sivan.

The real issue was that 2000 years ago there was a dispute between rabbinic Judaism and groups like the Samaritans, the Sadducees and the Boethusians: groups which would ultimately take themselves outside the Jewish community. Among other issues they disagreed on was what they understood by ‘the sabbath of Pesach.’ For those groups, ‘sabbath’ meant ‘sabbath’ and not ‘yom tov,’ so for them, the counting should always began on a Sunday.

And once Church and Synagogue were on separate and diverging paths, that tradition continued into the Christian calendar – hence Pentecost always occurs on the seventh Sunday after Easter. In Christian theology Pentecost was when it was believed the holy spirit came to rest on the original disciples. It’s what the Church did with the idea of revelation on Mount Sinai. In Christian tradition, then, Pentecost is the anniversary of the founding of the Church.

But there is another question. Pesach and Sukkot are linked with particular historical events – Pesach, obviously, with the Exodus, and Sukkot with the time we wandered in the desert before entering Eretz Yisrael. In the Torah, Shavuot, however, commemorates no historical event. It is solely an agricultural festival marking the end of the grain harvest. And once the Temple no longer existed, Jews were no longer able bring those 2 loaves and Shavuot risked losing its raison d’être, falling out of the festival calendar altogether.

So it was a stroke of rabbinic genius – for no immediately obvious reason – to connect Shavuot with the events on Mount Sinai.

The Torah tells us that the Israelites reached Mount Sinai in the 3rd month after the Exodus (Exodus 19:1.) That enabled our tradition to say that Shavuot was the moment when the Torah was given. Which also explains why one of the rabbinic names for Shavuot is atseret, which means ‘conclusion.’ The conclusion of what? – of Pesach. Not two separate festivals which just happen to occur 7 weeks apart, but two intimately-connected festivals. Exodus and Sinai, freedom and revelation. Rabbinically Pesach is called zeman cheruteinu, ‘the season of our freedom’ while rabbinically Shavuot is called zeman matan torateinu ‘the season of the giving of the Torah.’

One commentary asks if it would not have been more logical for Shavuot to be called ‘zeman kabalat torateinu,’ the ‘season of the receiving of Torah’? And answers the question by saying that Torah is always on offer, always being given – but it’s not always being received. As individuals and as a people we have to make an active choice about accepting it, we have to opt in. We have always celebrated freedom and obligation – autonomy and authority.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg suggests that Shavuot as the festival of revelation was essential to the Rabbis because “acceptance of the covenant of Torah made Israel an eternal people…. Acceptance of the Torah had occurred outside the land of Israel. Holiness could be found anywhere….. every aspect of life could be made holy anywhere in the world…. Covenant, revelation and holiness in time are religious models that can operate anywhere independent of holy space.” (The Jewish Way pp 78-79) Had Shavuot remained exclusively agricultural, concludes Greenberg, it would have withered on the vine.

Pesach to Shavuot – freedom and obligation – political liberation and spiritual dedication. Clearly the purpose of the Exodus was to get the Jewish People out from under an oppressive regime which enslaved them. But getting out of Egypt was just the first stage. The second part was coming to Sinai, freely accepting to enter into a covenant with God – a set of rules, duties and obligations. If the Exodus is the covenant between God and the Jews; Shavuot is the reciprocal covenant between the Jewish People and God.

Freedom without any sense of responsibility or obligation is no longer freedom but licence – do what you want; but duty and obligation without any individual freedom is, at best, oppressive, at worst a form of slavery. That, of course, has often been one of the arguments against that interpretation of Judaism which teaches basically, “just do and obey, don’t question.”

Throughout history, mainstream Judaism has always struggled with that tension between the demands of Torah – however understood – on the one hand and the realities of everyday life on the other. It’s a difficult tension to live with

That may be why we have this institution of the Omer, spelling out, as it were, that connection between Pesach and Shavuot: the season of our freedom and the season of giving the Torah. Not one or the other but both, however difficult it is to hold on to both.

Counting the days of the Omer, we connect Pesach and Shavuot, freedom and obligation – freedom as individuals, obligation as members of the community of Israel, trying to live with both, whilst avoiding extremes of freedom becoming anarchy, on the one hand, and obligation becoming a rigid straitjacket, on the other. It’s hard to get the balance right because the minute we find it, a new struggle