Manna, hunger, and counting the omer
In Jewish time, we are in the period of sefirat ha’omer — the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot when we count the omer.
Counting the omer is a hard sell for liberal Jews. I am always searching for ways to make it meaningful, but I realize that very few people in my congregation will stand up at home every evening for seven weeks to recite the blessing and then announce the number of days.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the Torah gives no explanation for the counting. In parshat Emor, which we read last week, the Israelites are commanded that when they enter the land, they must bring an offering of a sheaf (omer) of barley from the first harvest and then count seven weeks of seven days.
Why? Who knows?!
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Only much later did the ancient sages connect this commandment to revelation, explaining that we count the days between the Exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah at Sinai.
The beauty of having no explanation given in the Torah is that we are free to imbue the practice with meaning of our own. There are many different explanations of why we count the days. Some suggest that counting the days expresses excitement and anticipation. Just as children might count the days until their birthdays or adults might count the days until a vacation or special event, Jews count the days until we receive the amazing gift of Torah.
Others connect sefirat ha’omer with a verse from Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” Perhaps counting the days is intended to make us pause and appreciate each day of life that we are given. In her Introduction to Counting the Omer on Ritualwell.org, Carol Ochs says, “We also learn from the years of wandering in the desert and from the individual struggles represented in the stories of our heroes and heroines that waiting itself can be a sacred activity, an opportunity for reflection and trust. Although the goal of the count may be the encounter with God at Sinai, we take meaning from the journey each step of the way.”
Recently, a podcast in my inbox caught my attention. The title was “Is the Omer Still Important?” The podcast was created by Aleph Beta, which describes itself as “A Torah Media company dedicated to spreading the joy and love of meaningful Torah learning worldwide.”
In the podcast, Rabbi David Fohrman explains that the commandment in Leviticus points both backward and forward. Looking backward, he makes a linguistic connection with the manna God provided for the Israelites in the wilderness, because a portion of manna is also called an omer. Looking forward, he connects the passage in Leviticus with Chapter 5 of the Book of Joshua, when the Israelites have entered the land and for the first time are able to fulfill the command to bring an offering of grain and count the 49 days.
By looking back to the manna and ahead to Joshua, Rabbi Fohrman discovers a message in sefirat ha’omer. The message is that we are meant to remember that God provided manna for us in the wilderness and continues to provide for us in the land because our harvest depends not only on our own efforts but also on sun and rain and earth.
But there is more. Immediately following the passage about bringing an offering of an omer of barley and counting 49 days, there is the command to leave the corners of your field for the poor and the stranger. The placement of these two commandments next to each other reminds us that just as God takes care of us, we must take care of others. God provided enough manna for everyone in the wilderness, and therefore we too have a moral obligation to make sure there is enough for everyone.
The podcast ends by saying that all Jewish holidays have messages, but the lesson of the omer is different — the challenge of recognizing God’s partnership in our own work, not taking all the credit for ourselves, and accepting our responsibility to others is so difficult that one day or even one week is not enough. The Torah provides us a regimen of 49 days to make this point stick — that we are recipients of great gifts, just as our ancestors in the wilderness were. And we are obligated to share the abundance and make sure everyone has enough.
We live in a country where more than 34 million people, including 9 million children, are food-insecure, and we live in a world where, according to the United Nations, 793 million people are starving. If we connect counting the omer to our obligation to make sure everyone has enough, and if we spend this period between Passover and Shavuot considering what more we can do to address hunger and food insecurity in our world, that would be time well spent.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is a past president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding and active member of the council’s anti-racism committee.