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On Counting the Omer, The S. Hebron Hills, Regavim, and the Jewish National Mission
Parsahat Emor contains three main sections: 1. The laws of wholeness, perfection and purity governing who is fit to serve as a priest and what is a fitting sacrifice. 2. The holiday cycle. 3. Lex talionis (An eye for an eye.). This Shabbat would not bethe best candidate for disabilities awareness week, as physical disabilities disqualify a priest from offering sacrifices. We don’t have much contemporary thinking on who is fit to offer sacrifices because we don’t have a sacrificial cult today. However, contemporary halakhic authorities such asRabbi Eliezer Waldenberg have revised the way Jewish law thinks about people with disabilities in other contexts. For example, in the Talmudic laws of damages we are taught that somebody with a mental handicap does not get compensated for humiliation because s/he doesn’t suffer that emotion. Understanding today that this is not true, the rules of damages have been changed.
We also find Lex talionis disturbing, but many of us know that our sages interpreted an eye for an eye to refer to monetary compensation.
As a part of the description of the holiday cycle, we find the basis for the counting of the omer, a practice we are currently engaged in during this period between Passover and Shavuot. Actually, there are two separate commands that we have combined. We are commanded to bring an offering of an omer (a unit of measurement) from our first grain harvest. (Lev. 23:9). We are then told to count seven weeks, bringing us to Shavuot. (lev. 23:15)
I have always understood that the omer is a unit of barley, whereas Shavuot is associated with the wheat harvest. However, the Torah does not specify which grain is being harvested, and the Book of Ruth we read on Shavuot is actually all about the barley harvest. The Torah commentators Rashi and Soforno infer that, because we are told to bring a NEW grain offering after counting seven weeks, this can not be the same as the omer we brought before the counting. They teach thatthe first offering is barley and the second is wheat.
Puk Hazi – Go Out and See
Our sages also teach that, when in doubt about the halakha or meaning of the Torah, “Puk hazi!” Go out and see what the people are doing.
Things become clear to me every time I travel to the South Hebron Hills. Arab customs of honoring guests help me understand the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah. As we attempt to counter efforts by settlers (sometimes backed by the army) to deny Palestinians access to their water cisterns, I think about the struggles of Isaac and realize that not much has changed in 3,500 -4,000 years. Just today I received a call asking whether we could send volunteers to protect Palestinian farmers needing to reap near one of the more violent settlements. Around Passover time these farmers are harvesting barley, and by Shavuot they will be harvesting wheat. A week after Passover I was speaking with a landowner from the Twamin valley. Last year we managed to return the valley to his family after they had been denied access for some 12 years. They first started using the land again for grazing. Over the winter they planted wheat, and now we are discussing how to enable them to restore their damaged caves and live there again. However, Yousef said to me, “First things first. We need to reap.” “When?” I asked. “In about 40 days.” (Or so I thought. It turns out that the farmers of Haruba were harvesting their wheat early, because they detected settlers coming to look at their grain, knew they couldn’t watch their fields at night, and didn’t trust the army to protect them. They chose to reap to early for flour in order not to risk losing food for their flocks. Likewise, Yousef, chose to harvest early.)
We are now in for the fight of our lives in the S. HebronHills. “Regavim” is a right wing NGO that has learned from us and others how to use the courts to their advantage. Presenting themselves as a neutral good government organization (Although one look at their website tells otherwise.), they successfully use misleading statistics to argue reverse discrimination against settlers and to demand that the Civil Administration carry out more demolition orders against Palestinians. I have several times wanted to explode sitting in court and not being able to say a word because we were not officially a party in the case. The Civil Administration did not challenge Regavim‘s basic premises, but merely said they would carry out the demolitions according to their own timetable. But now things are different. We are representing the village of Susya, and Regavim is now demanding Susya‘s demolition. The case will be heard in Israel’s High Court on June 6th. I hope that when this is over Regavim‘s arguments will be so thoroughly discredited that they will never be able to use them again. But, the future of a village lies in the balance. We are doing our best to make sure that we leave no stone unturned, including raising the funds to commission an alternative zoning plan to challenge the current manipulation of zoning to prevent Susya‘s residents from building legally.
Independenceand the Purpose of Jewish Existence
I write these words on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israeli Independence day. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch connects between independence and the omer when he comments on the verse from our Torah portion, “And starting on the day after the Sabbath (Interpreted as the first day of Passover) you shall count for yourselves seven weeks.” (Lev. 23:15) He writes” “You have already celebrated the festival of your freedom. You have already given thanks to God for the independence that you have been privileged to receive, dwelling in your Land and eating from the bread of the Land. The fact is, you have already achieved liberation and the benefits of independence that are usually thought of as the ultimate goal of national aspirations. However, you must see yourselves as only at the outset of your mission as a nation, and must now count towards the achievement of a different goal. Therefore the language of the command to count the omer in Deuteronomy is: You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain.” (Deut. 16:9). Where others finish counting, your counting begins.”
My children remember how when they were younger we would march around as we counted the omer, imagining what we were seeing around us as we were walking through the desert from Egypt towards Sinai. As we got closer to Shavuot we would begin to see Mt. Sinai looming closer and closer. “Puk hazi!” Perhaps we adults also need to go out and look around. Instead of imagining camels and sand in the desert, we need to go out and see what is happening in the Land of Israel. Like our sages who dealt with Lex Talionis and those rabbis who have applied what we know today about disabilities to halakha, we must let what we see around us inform our spiritual path and we must let our Jewish tradition help us understand what we see.
I see that most of my fellow Israelis truly want to be a just and decent nation. This is incredibly important, and we should never forget this. However, I also see the Palestinians of Susya fighting for their cisterns and their school and their wheat and their homes. I seeRachel Levywho was not interested in celebratingthe sederthis year because, after having been evicted from her public housing home, she felt that she had been returned from relative freedom to slavery.
Leaving the Gleanings and Criminal Good Will
Parashat Emor also teaches us some of the values we must apply to what we see. Rabbi Hirschexplains thatthe listof holidays is “interrupted” in Leviticus 23:22 with the obligatory command to leave the corners of our fields and the fallen sheaves for the poor and the stranger because it is one with the command to bring the grain offerings to God. They both oppose the idea that we have the sole right to determine what to do with our possessions, or that the ability of the poor and the stranger to live with dignity should be dependent onthe goodwill of those with power and property. Rabbi Hirschdoes not reject the idea of private property or demand that all property be divided equally. However, the offerings we bring to theTemplewere never really ours, and the less fortunate gleaningthe fieldsare taking what is owed to them-what belongs to them. It is important, but not enough to want to be just and decent.Rabbi Hirschwrites that the resources belong to all, and the “progressive” idea that those with power and property have the right to decide what they will grant to others borders on the criminal.
Even were it withthe bestof intentions, when we Israelis carry on a conversation among ourselves, see it as our prerogative alone to decide how to be decent to Palestinians and set up a system of ” justice” over which Palestinians have almost no influence, we are giving ourselves authority we should not have. We too must be obligated to a higher law that we do not determine for ourselves. When the one percent of privileged Israelis accept the “burden” of deciding what is best for their fellow Israelis and believe it is their prerogative to determine how they should share what belongs to them, their thought process is fundamentally flawed and will almost always lead to injustice..
“Eyn mukdam v’eyn m’ukhar b’Torah.” There is no necessary chronological order in the Torah. We have leftEgypt and we are dwelling in the Land. However, we still need to get to Sinai.