Torah

Emor: Counting Again and Again

Avigayil Halpern is publishing a weekly feminist dvar Torah on the parsha through her newsletter, Approaching, which is being crossposted to Jewschool. You can subscribe to Approaching here.

It is apt and delightful that in the midst of the counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot, we read Parshat Emor. Emor, among a wide range of subjects, includes discussion of the cycle of the year and the holidays. This includes the commandment to count the days between offering of the Korban Haomer — the first sheaf of wheat — and the korban of the Shtei Halechem, two loaves of fine bread. This commandment to count is one we observe even without these grain offerings, marking off the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot.

The Torah gives us the mitzvah of counting as follows:

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת־עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה׃

And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete:

עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַיהוָה׃

you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD.

(Vayikra 16:15-16)

We are commanded to count the days and weeks leading up to this offering of the “mincha chadasha,” the “new grain offering.” The very counting itself is the mitzvah, though it is also associated with other mitzvot. Even when the sacrificial pieces of this process fall away — the grain sacrifices sandwiching the counting gone, leaving only filling of the sandwich in the form of the counting itself — we are left with the counting.

Commenting on the nature of this counting as we observe it today, counting a higher number each day, Atara Lindenbaum of Yeshivat Maharat observes:

The method of counting backwards is striking. When we count before momentous events, we generally count how much time we have left until we reach the anticipated event…

The method of counting backwards, though, helps us re-enact the way the Jewish people felt when they left Egypt. Bnei Yisrael did not know when they would receive the Torah, they did not know how their journey in the desert would continue, and therefore could not possibly count towards anything, since that day was unknown and perhaps unimaginable. As we count only the days that have passed since Pesach, we can imagine how our ancestors felt in the desert as each day passed, as they had no idea what tomorrow would bring. Perhaps they also kept a count of how many days they managed to keep going in the desert, not knowing exactly from where their sources of food, water, and spirituality would come.

Bnei Yisrael are praised for doing just that; for journeying into the unknown.

As Lindenbaum characterizes it, counting the Omer upwards instead of counting down helps us to access the experience of the Jewish people as they ventured out into the desert after the Exodus, into what would be years of uncertainty and wandering. The only thing they could measure, could control, was to mark off each day as it passed. They had no knowledge of what was to come.

I have always struggled with the unknown. Sometimes, this takes the form of personality quirks: I hate surprise parties, I usually enjoy knowing that I’m getting a gift to not knowing what’s in the package, and I always read restaurant menus before showing up to eat. But this goes beyond foibles.

My anxiety touches so many areas of my life, and in particular reaches its tentacles into any situation where I can’t control what will happen. I take the subway and worry that I’ll pass out even though I’m no longer dealing with headaches and fatigue (and even when I was, fainting wasn’t a symptom). I triple-check food I already have in the fridge to make sure that I haven’t inadvertently bought dairy yogurt instead of the coconut-milk kind. I’ve been kept up at night worrying about a fifteen-minute change in my school schedule.

Before I go to bed every night, I walk around my apartment. I check that the door is double-locked, and I wiggle each stove knob to make sure none of them are leaking any gas. (I now do this only once a night and not several times — thanks, therapy!) I also stand underneath my smoke detector and stare up at it. A Google search of its brand a few months ago revealed that the smoke detector is supposed to blink green every thirty seconds if it’s working properly. So I stand there, and I count.

So far, it’s always blinked.

The Kli Yakar, commenting on the pesukim about about counting the Omer, notes that the Torah here does not point out that Shavuot, the fiftieth day of the count, is also the day that the Torah was given.

והקרבתם מנחה חדשה לה’. סימן ליום מ”ת, כי התורה צריכה להיות חדשה אצל האדם בכל יום כאלו היום קבלה מהר סיני… כי באמת ארז”ל (עירובין נד:) שהתורה נמשלה לדד, זה שכל זמן שהתינוק ממשמש בה הוא מוצא בה טעם חדש, כך התורה כל ההוגה בה מוצא בכל יום טעם חדש, ע”כ דין הוא שיהיה דומה אליו בכל יום כאלו היום קבלה מהר סיני וא”כ כל יום הוא מ”ת אצל ההוגים בה, ע”כ אין ראוי להגביל יום ידוע לנתינתה, וע”כ ארז”ל (ספרי ואתחנן ו ו) שיהיו ד”ת חדשים עליך ולא כדבר הישן שלבו של אדם קץ בו שהרי באמת אתה מוצא בה דבר חידוש בכל יום ויום, וע”כ אין יום נתינתה מבואר בתורה יותר ממה שנרמז בהבאת מנחה חדשה להורות שהתורה מנחה חדשה בכל יום ויום

“You shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD.” This is symbolic of the day of the giving of the Torah, since the Torah needs to be new for each person every day, as if that day she had received it from Mount Sinai… For in truth our Rabbis say (in Eruvin 54b) that the Torah is compared to a breast, that every time that a baby searches it, she finds in it a new taste, so too the Torah, everyone who contemplates it finds in it each day a new flavor. Therefore, it follows that each day should be similar for her to the day of receiving [the Torah] from Sinai, and if so, each day is the giving of the Torah for those who contemplate it. Therefore, it is not fit to delineate a known day for the giving [of the Torah], and therefore our Rabbis say (in Sifrei Va’Etchanan 6:6) that the words of the Torah should be new to you and not like something old that a person’s heart is fed up with, for in truth you should find in it a novel thing each and every day. And therefore the day of [the Torah’s] giving is not defined in the Torah beyond what is hinted at with the bringing of the new grain-offering, to teach that the Torah is a new offering each and every day.

The Kli Yakar tells us that the mention of the “mincha chadasha,” the new grain offering, in the discussion of the count of the Omer alludes to the Torah itself. The verses don’t ignore that the fifty-day count also leads us to the day of the giving of the Torah; they hint to it. In the Kli Yakar’s interpretation, the Torah does not mention the exact day of the theophany at Sinai because the nature of Torah is that knowing the exact day ought to be irrelevant. Torah is revealed to us — and we reveal Torah — each and every day.

The Kli Yakar here implies that inherent in the nature of the Omer is the day-to-day, not that which the count leads up to. Torah is not about some huge moment of revelation, to be counted down to like a college graduation or a birthday. Torah is every day, full of excitement and novelty but as consistently present for us as a parent’s feeding.

Lindenbaum points out that “Bnei Yisrael did not know when they would receive the Torah… and therefore could not possibly count towards anything, since that day was unknown and perhaps unimaginable.” The Kli Yakar suggests that this is the nature of Torah, that we are always in a state of unsureness about when the day it will be given will come — because there is no single day.

Later on in her dvar Torah, Lindenbaum cites the words of Jeremiah, praising the Jewish people for following God into the unknown wilderness:

כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה׃

…Thus said the LORD: I accounted to your favor The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride— How you followed Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown.

Here, the Jewish people are celebrated for their relinquishing of control and knowledge, their trust in God. God sees the Jewish people following God into the desert as an act of deep love.

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat has written poems for each day of the Omer. This is her poem for the twenty-ninth day, which has just drawn to a close:

DAY 29: LOVE GOD

To love God — that’s a tall order.

Does the Milky Way notice me?

The Horsehead Nebula? If I’m a speck

of dust compared with their grandeur

how much smaller I must seem

to the One Who made them. And yet —

the mystics say the world was born

because God was lonely. She wanted

to sit in her rocking chair and chat

while She knitted the sunset clouds.

How could I not love the One Who whispers

exist! and the daffodils bloom?

Venturing into the unknown, embracing a Torah that is given every day with no clear arrival time, might be an act of love for God. But God also loves us.

I was taught in day school (probably a Rashi, but in my mind this is the Torah of my middle school Chumash teacher) that the reason God orders several censuses of Bnei Yisrael in the Chumash is because when you love something, you want to count it again and again. I have been imagining God’s love as tinged with anxiety, counting over and over. When we count the Omer, waiting and waiting for a Sinai moment whose arrival is uncertain, perhaps God is waiting with us.

If Torah is something we receive every day, tomorrow’s revelation is always an unknown, and the unknown fills me with fear. But what if God is scared right alongside me?

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