Monday, 4 May 2015

15th Iyar: The Origins of the Omer

“They journeyed from Elim, and the entire community of the children of Israel came to the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. The entire community of the children of Israel complained against Moshe and against Aharon in the desert. The children of Israel said to them, If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death” (Shemot 16:1-3).

In the Jewish calendar, we see many months contain an historical event of note on the fifteenth of the month, for example Pesach, Shushan Purim and Tu B'Av. The essence of these months are defined by the month's central event, hence Nisan is considered the month of redemption. I would like to suggest that in the same manner, the month of Iyar is also defined by the event that took place on its fifteenth of the month: the giving of the manna.

In the first year of the Exodus, the Jewish people did not have an easy journey from leaving slavery in Egypt to arriving at Mount Sinai to accept the Torah. They had five major difficulties on the way: war with Egypt at the Yam Suf; no water at Marah; no food in Midbar Sin; no water at Masa U'merivah; war with Amalek at Refidim. Of these, the most serious and fundamental challenge to the Jewish people and its relationship with God was the manna, given by God in response to their complaints of food.

It is the complaint of food that first brought the accusation against Moshe and Aharon that their entire motive of the Exodus was to starve the people. Beforehand, when the people complained about a lack of water, their complaints did not reach this level of criticism, as they simply asked 'What shall we drink?' The manna, as a response to this complaint, was certainly the most difficult change for the people to implement. They struggled with the idea that they had to take all of the manna that fell, and not leave any for the morning - and even more so on Friday, when they had to trust that the food would last them two days.

Following years of slavery, the people could deal with the challenges of war, which required an immediate salvation. They could also deal with the challenge of a lack of water, since if it was there, they would drink it, and if it wasn't they would ask and immediately receive it. Yet the challenge of not being able to make food constituted a fundamental change in attitudes to daily life. It is not natural or pleasant to be reliant on someone else to provide food for one's family. However bad slavery was, it allowed people a modicum of this aspect of normal life.

The purpose of the manna, and the reason why it needed to be eaten for an entire generation, was to inculcate in the people the fundamental truth that wherever they are in the world, all sustenance is ultimately bestowed by God. The manna was never intended to be an ideal. Rather, it was a practice for the ultimate test: living in the Land of Israel, working in agriculture, producing one's own food and realising that at every turn, the final product was only possible due to God's guiding hand and providence.

It is fascinating, therefore, that the first time we encounter the word 'omer', it is in the context of the giving of the manna on the fifteenth of Iyar, and appears six times in the chapter. The omer is a measurement, and the amount for each person to take of manna each day. The Torah is very precise about this, mentioning that the people measured it, and describing the omer relative to other measurements (it was a tenth of an ephah).

And it is this very same measurement that the Jewish people are commanded to bring before God as an offering, "when they come to the Land...and you reap its harvest" (Vayikra 23:10). The Torah in brief, and the Mishna in detail, explain how the Cohen waves the omer before God as a sign of the people's acknowledgement that it is God who gives sustenance to the people. The significance of using an omer's worth of produce should not be missed: it is through the omer of manna that the people internalised this truth.

The ritual of Seder Night teaches us to appreciate our political reality - freedom as opposed to slavery, and how it was God who gave us it. The ritual of the Omer teaches us to appreciate something even more fundamental: our very existence as human beings depends on His sustenance. Perhaps this is why the Omer ritual was to be performed on the sixteenth of Nisan, the very next day after Pesach and the Seder night.

Yet the Torah does not merely proscribe the internalisation of this message to one day. Rather, after describing the Korban Omer (Omer sacrifice) performed by the Cohen, the Torah commands each and every person to count "for themselves" the days from when the Omer was first brought (16th Nisan) for seven complete weeks (Vayikra 23:15), after which a 'new offering' of bread is brought, on the holiday known as Shavuot. Through these mitzvot, we see that the process of the Omer is an individual and national journey of appreciating the level of interaction between God and the Jewish people. God is not 'merely' a power that can free the people from slavery, or conjure up water, but rather nurtures us constantly, creating the conditions by which man can produce his own food, and live each day in appreciation of how he is able to do it.

A month after the Exodus, the fifteenth of Iyar saw the biggest challenge of the post-Exodus plan. In the same way that the short-term response to it was far-reaching in its ramifications, with the people eating manna for 40 years, the long-term response was similarly far reaching, with the mitzvah of counting the Omer encompassing every day of the month of Iyar each year. Therefore as we count the Omer today, like all other days, and internalise the reality that God is the ultimate source of all our physical day-to-day needs, we transform a day that could have created an irreparable rift between the Jewish people and God to one that cements our interdependence, and everlasting relationship.

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