Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Rosh Tefillah 2017 Jeremy Fineberg. Jeremy is an alumnus of Brandeis University and is currently in his third year of Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Jeremy currently serves as the Slifka Rabbinic Fellow at the Hillel at Binghamton University. A lifelong Ramahnik, Jeremy has been a counselor, rosh edah, and most recently the program director at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.
Reflections on Parashat Emor
By Jeremy Fineberg
When I was a camper, my AOL Instant Messenger profile, like the profiles of virtually all of my aidah (division) -mates, had a countdown to the upcoming summer at Ramah. Because this was the early 2000’s and countdown timers were not as popular as they are today, every day I would diligently subtract one from the count and update my profile. While I no longer have an AOL account with its relatively low-tech profile, I still keep a countdown to my summers at camp, and I know I’m not the only one. As the number of days grows smaller and June 13th inches closer, this countdown to the kikar brings with it the hopes, dreams, and happiness of so many campers, staff and parents. Inspired by the countdown to camp, I want to examine another important countdown, or rather count-up, currently happening in many parts of the Jewish world.
In this week’s parashah, Emor, God shares the sacred calendar of the Jewish people, explaining when holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Passover will fall. In addition, God tells the people:
וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃
עַ֣ד מִֽמָּחֳרַ֤ת הַשַּׁבָּת֙ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔ת תִּסְפְּר֖וּ חֲמִשִּׁ֣ים י֑וֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֛ם מִנְחָ֥ה חֲדָשָׁ֖ה לַה׳׃
Usfartem lachem mimachorat hashabbat, miyom havi’achem et omer hat’nufah – sheva shabbatot t’mimot tihyenah. Ad mimachorat hashabbat hash’vi’it, tisp’ru chamishim yom; v’hikravtem minchah chadashah ladonai.
“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:
you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.” (Leviticus 21:15-16)
These verses include the biblical commandment to “count the omer.” This counting tracks the first stages of the harvest seasons for grain, beginning at the outset of Passover and reaching a major milestone nearly two months later, on the holiday of Shavuot. Like all of the Biblical pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), whose roots are in the agricultural rhythms of the Middle East, Shavuot also acquires historical significance: for the Rabbis it is the holiday that marks God’s giving of the Torah which takes place somewhere between six and twelve weeks after leaving Egypt (that is, Passover). This transition from freedom to receiving the Torah on Sinai is marked by counting the days from Passover to Shavuot, but unlike a modern countdown clock, each day we add to the count, instead of subtracting.
What are we counting towards during these two countings, one up to receiving the Torah, the other down to a summer at Ramah? Some may be counting towards a reunion, whether with our sacred texts or a cherished opportunity to see old friends (and make new ones!). Others may be counting towards arriving at a sacred place, returning to the kikar and the pristine shores of Lake Buckatabon, or to Mount Sinai. Yet for many others, the countdown is about the new experiences to be had, memories to be made, and growing to be done once we reach our destination, be it physical, temporal, or spiritual.
The experience of counting towards receiving the Torah can teach us a great deal about counting towards the summer. Our counting should be towards an experience that changes us and causes us to grow, by reuniting and connecting with something that makes us more whole. Critically, the transformative experiences and opportunities we find ourselves counting towards are transformative precisely because the effects of those experiences must not and do not end when they are only memories. We gain insight and inspiration from them that we carry with us, even and especially when the counting begins again. The revelatory experiences of receiving the Torah at Sinai and a summer at Ramah, though quite vivid, won’t last forever. However, if we take that experience with us and let that development continue over the coming year, our countdowns next year will be about more than reaching the same place as this year. Instead, they will be about reaching for even higher heights of growth, fun, and friendship.
As many of our staff will arrive in camp just before or after Shavuot, the differences in counting down and counting up are also worth exploring: what makes each special, and what might each represent? What are we counting towards when we look forward to God giving us Torah / teaching / guidance? And to what are we counting down when we look forward to camp?
Shavuot is in two-and-a-half weeks – what are you counting up towards?
There are 32 days left until summer 2017 – what are you counting down towards?