Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
As I strolled through the greenhouses at Longwood Gardens the other day, brilliant blossoms of yellow and white and blue dazzled my senses. The sun on my pale skin told me it had been snowing only yesterday, and reminded me how suddenly the seasons change—and how sensible, in this time of powerful transformation it is to celebrate Passover, our (perennial) liberation from slavery in Egypt. But this riot of color also made me wonder: How does the Omer—this period of quiet, patient waiting—connect to the process of liberation and the revelation that we experience at the end of the Omer on the holiday of Shavuot?
Perhaps the Haggadah is leaving something out in its desire to bring us directly to Jerusalem: The Torah describes that God led them not by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near…[and instead made] the people journey in circles, by the way of the wilderness” (Ex 13:17-18).
In an ancient midrash, the rabbis are understandably alarmed that God didn’t guide the Israelites along the most direct path to freedom – ki karov hu, “although it was near.” Wouldn’t we expect God to want us to be free as soon as possible?
After many urgent attempts to justify God’s reasoning, one rabbi imagines God saying:
If I bring Israel into the land now, each person will immediately take possession of his field and vineyard, and he won’t engage with Torah. Instead, I will make them walk around in the wilderness for forty years, so that they will eat manna and drink the water of (Miriam’s) well, and the Torah will be mixed into their bodies. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael).
So why this empty space, this wilderness before Sinai?
The rabbis suggest, after hundreds of years of slavery, if God brings the Israelites directly to their destination, their bodies—conditioned by habit—will continue to work the land like they used to, unable to pause and look up to the heavens in prayer. Individuals will remain powerless in their separation from one another, each bound to her own field—and not find strength in the dawning consciousness of a new and powerful collective peoplehood.
Thrust into the hands of those unaccustomed to freedom, words of Torah and acres of land will become tools to perpetuate oppression rather than forces to support liberation.
Instead, before the famously jarring theatrics of Sinai, God gives the people a different Torah: wordless, plain, free from “dos” and “do nots.” Rather than handing it out to the Israelites during a mind-blowing firework show, this Torah is consumed silently with foraged food and well-water, and its content is just enough to sustain each person. This is the Torah of empty spaces, of the everyday, of wandering without a known destination.
If the mountaintop is too high to see, God says, this Torah is spread out all around you, on the earth beneath your feet. God’s decision to lead the Israelites around in the wilderness forces us to begin to see the holiness of the daily activities we do in order to survive, to cherish the work of being together.
While we wait for Shavuot, for the ecstatic passing down of this text, the practice of counting the Omer reminds us of the hidden Torah God gave our people before the revealed Torah of Sinai.
The 49 days of the Omer remind us that even when we commit to a path of liberation, it can only unfold in each of our unique bodies and minds, with all their habits and imperfections. This work is slow, and like all holy work, requires of us three things: that we reach for the ground before leaping toward the sky, that we engage in the holy act of nourishing our bodies in community—and mostly, that we remember the simple and holy work of numbering our days.
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Pronounced: huh-GAH-duh or hah-gah-DAH, Origin: Hebrew, literally “telling” or “recounting.” A Haggadah is a book that is used to tell the story of the Exodus at the Passover seder. There are many versions available ranging from very traditional to nontraditional, and you can also make your own.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.