Rabbi Wolpe - ADL Impressions

Emor- How to Really Count

During these days, Jews count the “Omer.” The Omer marks the 50 days traveling the desert from Egypt to Sinai. Beginning the second night of Passover, we count each day until the holiday of Shavuot, 50 days later, when Israel stood at Sinai to receive the Torah. Jews follow the practice of counting each evening, and there are many spiritual and mystical significances given to the days.

The Omer also has agricultural significance. It recalls the wave offering of the Temple on the second day of Passover. The wave offering was a measure of flour made from the first sheaves of barley grain that had been reaped.

The late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, writes that the Talmud regards barley is a maakhel behema, a food fit for beasts. Why do we offer animal food in the Temple? Could it not be construed as an insult to God?

We know, he continues, that human beings share many things with animals. From a certain perspective, we are a link on the biological chain, and nothing more. As with all of nature, we are governed by our physical natures. Yet, human beings can act against impulse and behave in ways that refuse to permit our impulses to control us. Judaism teaches that it is often our task to rise above animality alone and to realize our higher natures.

Nature is, in the famous phrase of the poet Tennyson, “Red in tooth and claw.” Violence and cruelty are part of human nature, too. Yet according to the Talmud, the purpose of the mitzvot — the entire system of Jewish law — is to refine human beings. That which begins as an animal instinct can, through the guidance of Torah, be lifted to embody an expression of the Divine. The barley offering is a food for animals, but sifted and refined, it can be offered to God. We too begin with an animal nature, but the Omer represents the aspiration to ennoble instinct, to recognize that we are indeed animals, but we are not only animals. Sifted and refined, day by day, we are worthy to approach God.