Parshat Emor contains the following topics: mitzvot concerning the Cohein who is tamei and unable to officiate, specific rules for the High Priest, a priest who is disfigured, unacceptable sacrificial offerings, the holiday cycle, the menorah and sacrificial bread, and a bizarre section at the very end about someone who blasphemes. The longest section, and perhaps the section that is most relevant to us today is the list of all our holidays in order: Shabbat, Passover, the days of the Omer, Shavuot, the High Holidays, and Sukkot.
To me, this parsha contains essential teachings about the cycles of time in Judaism. To the confusion of many of us, we have two annual cycles of time that we move through at the same moment. First, we have the annual Torah reading cycle that each week presents us with another Parasha, or portion of the 5 books of Moses. This cycle starts and concludes and starts again on Simchat Torah and is followed by Jews all over the world who read from the same columns of the Torah scrolls regardless of where they live, what languages they speak, and which movements they affiliate with.
At the same time as we move through the Torah’s stories and teachings, we move through a different cycle that is described in this parshah, and that is the chagim, the holy days and sacred seasons that are the spices of the year. The first of these is Shabbat and it’s weekly rhythms . The annual holiday cycle begins in Spring with Pesach, moves through the 49 days of the Omer to Shavuot, the festival of revelation. Then we have the High Holidays which fall in the seventh lunar month of the Hebrew calendar and culminate in Ha Chag, The festival: Sukkot. Then six months later the cycle starts over again with Pesach. Later, additions to this basic cycle were made: Simchat Torah, Chanukah, Tu B’Shevat, Purim, Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Yom Yerushalyim, Tisha B’av, and Tu B’av producing the very full and somewhat confusing calendar that we know today. The basic elements of this calendar remain unchanged from this parshah: Shabbat, Pesach, Omer, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
Usually these two cycles operate fully independently. We read about the Exodus from Egypt in the Winter as we make our way through the Book of Shemot; we celebrate Passover in the Spring at the season that we were actually born as a people leaving slavery. We read about our wanderings in the desert in the late spring and early summer; we celebrate Sukkot for a week starting with the full moon of Tishrei which falls in Autumn. The reason for this is that the annual Torah reading cycle is a creation of the rabbis who divided the Torah into weekly portions; the holidays are directly related to the seasons they fall, the ancient agricultural cycles that they celebrate, and the annual seasons and dates that they are a commemoration of.
These are two separate, independent cycles of time, but this is the one point in the whole year where they always meet up. We always read Parsha Emor which describes the Omer when it is the Omer. And within this meeting of the two cycles, this conjunction, is a reminder to look more closely at these days of the Omer, these days we are counting and numbering daily and experiencing right now, and have just read about in the Torah.
Despite the importance that the Torah places on these days in this Parshah, the meaning of the Omer period remains elusive. The Torah tells us :
23: 15, we are to:
But why do we count these days? What is their significance. This being a Jewish question, there are multiple explanations of these seven weeks. I have encountered at least seven reasons for the commandment to count these 49 days, these 7 weeks.
Clear from the Torah is the agricultural roots of this time period. This was the season of anticipating the grain harvest, the rains had fallen, the seeds had been planted, and now our ancestors who were shepherds and farmers waited. They counted these days and at the end celebrated their harvest and their continued survival.
2. Connecting freedom to revelation.
By counting these days we directly link Passover the season of our birth, with Shavuot, the anniversary of receiving the ten commandments, revelation, Torah. By counting these days we realize that freedom without Torah is pointless; we were freed for the purpose of God drawing us close and giving us our mission statement as a people.
3. Stops on the journey
These days recall the physical journey from Egypt, across the Sea of Reeds, through the wilderness and to Mount Sinai. This counting of the Omer is a recreation of these days and the locations our ancestors camped in.
4. To make sure we don’t miss the moment of revelation
We count these days as we would count the days to a birthday or special trip. The Torah describes how on the day of the giving of the Torah the sound of a great shofar was heard and the people got up, left their tents and gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai. Of course an obvious question is why did the people need this divine wake up call, why were they still in their tents on the day that Moses had previously told them G-d would speak to them? A Midrash explains that exhausted from the journey and the physical and spiritual preparations for this divine encounter, our ancestors overslept! We prove ourselves more ready for this encounter by counting the days leading up to it so we don’t miss it, and some even stay awake all night at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot to be present at the actual moment of revelation
5. Rabbi Akiva
Some says these days are in honor of Rabbi Akiva and in memory of his many students who died during these weeks. If they were killed by a plague, a divine punishment, or Roman persecution is not clear, but it is clear that had they all died 2,000 years ago there would be no Judaism today, the chain of continuity and education would have been broken. On Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, this coming Monday night and Tuesday, their deaths ceased and we celebrate this day as the festival of students: marked with parties, haircuts, weddings, and bonfires, a break from the somberness and semi-mourning feel of the omer.
6. Spiritual cleansing
In the Kabbalistic tradition, these 49 days are a season of deep spiritual fixing as we align ourselves to the 7 sephirot, the mystical attributes that we share with God: chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yisod, malchut: loving kindness, setting limits,being in balance, endurance, being present, righteousness, and grounding spirituality in physicality. These days are counted as ways to perfect these seven traits and how they relate to each other,each day having its own unique mystical combination of attributes to perfect.
7. Reb Nachman Bratlsav
Reb Nachman Bratlsav perhaps said it best: the best way to count each day of the Omer is to make each day count. As it says in Psalms: teach us to treasure each day that we may achieve a heart of wisdom. This day will never come again, it is a unique gift, a sacred opportunity. Our days are numbered, they are finite. By counting them, one at a time, we can learn to fill each one with goodness and meaning.
This parshah, Emor, reminds us of the Torah reading cycle and the holiday cycle that intersect on this 30th day of the Omer. This special Shabbat we are celebrating here at Netivot Shalom, Shabat Na’areinu: the Sabbath of our Youths, is a reminder of the other cycle of time that we all experience: the life cycle.
As spring becomes summer, seedlings become plants and next year’s harvest. Children become adults; students become teachers.
Of course, our students, our children are already our teachers, and our teachers are always students. We learn from each other, and we teach each other.
The Omer teaches us that every day is special; this Shabbat reminds us how every student is special, every teacher is a gift, every person is a treasure to be celebrated. We are a congregation of learners, and a community of teachers, and a family of sacred individuals. Mazel to to all the students and teachers, to all of us.