The Omer and The Modern Days of Awe
The Omer period not by chance to my mind, annually coincides with what I term the modern days of awe here in Israel – Yom Hashoa, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haaztmaut. There is a perennial message that all these events have to teach us. That there is a long and winding road to freedom that is sustained through incremental growth and robust perseverance.
The Kindertransport: A Story
January 1939: Two young girls arrive at Liverpool Street station, London, escaping to England from the Nazi Regime in Germany on the Kinder-transport. Leaving their family behind, Paula aged eleven and Susi aged nine make their way to their 'adopted' family in Gateshead. Knowing neither the language, culture, nor people and being shocked by the simplicity of England compared to their comfortable life in Germany, it took them a long time to adapt to their new life and surroundings. They were of course the lucky ones, especially since in the end both their parents and other siblings managed to escape Nazi Germany. But they did face difficult obstacles, yet despite this they both managed to turn their lives around, building strong families and a legacy of work on behalf of the Jewish people. In the face of adversity my grandmother Paula and her sister Susi triumphed. Their life philosophy: Gratitude, perseverance, belief in process and deep faith and allegiance to their religious history and tradition. Their story is echoed in the lives of so many in their generations, survivors and refugee alike.
The Omer: A lesson in Liberty
Shavuot is the only Chag in the Torah that we are commanded to keep without being told the exact date of its falling. We are only told to count seven weeks or fifty days from the festival of Pesach when the barley harvest occurs. Its date is based on our counting the seven weeks, fifty days. The very act of our counting ensures the festival will be kept. The goal/date is less important than the process we must undertake to get there. The journey from slaves to free people as enacted through the omer count, is one that attunes us to the significance of time, process, persistence.
The future is a constituent of the past. To progress and reach the end I have to first go through the process of counting towards it. I have to live through each day, recognise the value of the present moment, whilst keeping my eye on the end goal. As Isaiah Berlin famously taught us, negative liberty, the freedom from oppression is easy, positive liberty, the freedom to consciously dictate my own destiny is much harder. On pesach the people received negative liberty, on Shavuot they were prescribed the tools for positive liberty. The journey we take as individual and a nation from then until today is one in which we learn how to use those tools to lead a meaningful and truly liberating existence, and it is premised on our ability to see ourselves as a constituents of a much larger narrative. True liberty is won through the sacrifice of instant results and immediate gratification in favour of long-term meaningful character formation.
Rabbi Akiva: Recovery as process:
The counting of the Omer period today has been somewhat obscured through its association with the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Having once been a period of hope and anticipation it has transformed into a period of mourning. However we should not lose sight of the deep and profound insight in associating the two events. Rabbi Akiva exemplifies the lessons of the Omer count. Having lost all his students to a plague he rebuilds and creates a new cohort of followers. After watching a water fall on a rock day after day slowly wearing away the sediment he decides he too, even at the age of 40, can return to the classroom to learn torah. When his contemporaries stand at the ruins of the Temple crying, he laughs for he intuits that since the prophecy of doom and destruction has been fulfilled the prophecy of regeneration and redemption will be too. Rabbi Akiva is a visionary and also a pragmatist. He possesses the ability to see beyond the here and now but the resilience, wisdom and patience to exist in the present moment and make space for the process.
Having lived through one of the most tumultuous periods in Jewish History, the destruction of the Temple, in which the nations entire religious framework and categories of reference were destroyed Rabbi Akiva offered the people hope in the face of despair, belief in the process as a means to recovery. He understood that the end would come if we learn how to live through the pain of the process. The counting of days, weeks, months is a due process to any recovery from tragedy, and as a nation we have had to endure such recoveries many times.
Being part of the Redemptive process in the History of the Jewish Nation: On Bikkurim and Megillat Rut
It is no coincidence that the agricultural message of the festival of Shavuot/weeks, which is one of process, patience and the slow growing but developing grains, is called by Chazal - Zeman Matan Torateinu – the time of the giving of the Torah. In the same way material sustenance requires endurance and patience, so too with intellectual and spiritual fulfilment. The attainment of truth is one that requires a lifetime to nurture and much patience and searching to unfold.
In the ceremony of the first fruits (bikkurim) that could be bought to the Temple from the time of Shavuot each person must recount the story of his people – armi oved avi (the central story of the Haggadah on Pesach) is the story of Am Yisarel from slaves to free people. When we bring the bikkurim, finally returned to our land, reaping the fruits of our labour, we are given the gift of perspective. By relaying the story of our ancestors we are attesting to our part in the very long and tumultuous history of our people and their dream; a journey from slavery to redemption. It teaches us poignantly the message of time and process.
Sefer Rut that we read on Shavuot reflects all the themes of the Chag thus discussed. Redemption is achieved through a piecemeal mundane process. Liberty is won through sacrifice, freedom is obtained through relationships and the determination of the human spirit. It is about hope in the face of despair, love in the face of animosity, patience and belief in the value and efficacy of a process. It is about the dynamism and flexibility of the oral law that in the end allowed Ruth to be a part of our nation even though the Torah forbade it – once again acknowledging the need and imperative of process.
Today this message resonates even more profoundly. The modern State of Israel tests our patience and belief in process. The need to acknowledge that though redemption may be in sight we are still undergoing a process that demands we work incrementally towards the dream without becoming overwhelmed by the failures and hurdles along the way. Through counting the Omer and living through our modern days of awe, we are reminded that we are part of something larger than just our individual existence, or this current moment in our national history. We are reminded only sacrifice, hard work and strong belief and vision are what prepare us in our long walk to freedom. We are reminded that in a generation that values results over effort, revolution over evolution and the instant over process our religious tradition and rituals still have enduring and edifying value.