A central feature of this week’s reading is the command to bring an “omer”, a measure of barley, to the sanctuary, beginning on the second day of Pesach. From that moment we have to count 49 days until the festival of Shavu’ot.
Maimonides tells us that the Counting of the Omer is the lead-up to Shavu’ot in the sense that we generally count the days until the arrival of a welcome guest.
The Sefer HaChinuch adds that counting the days expresses our constant thankfulness to God for the good harvests we enjoy, not just literally in terms of barley and wheat, but figuratively in the sense of all the blessings the Creator bestows upon us.
Every day brings its blessing, as does every week, every month, every year. But that isn’t the end of the discussion. Not only do we thank God for the blessing each day brings: we also thank Him for the simple fact that every day is itself a blessing.
We learn this with added poignancy the older we get. The child is excited about what the new day will bring; the older adult is grateful to be granted one more lease of life.
Our gratitude to God for every day has an extra responsibility – to find a fresh blessing to bring each day to the well-being of the world.
The title of the sidra is “Emor” – “Talk”.
People talk all the time. They talk too much in fact. Loose tongues are such a danger. Not just when the tongue says nasty things. We know that’s not allowed, since the Psalmist says,
“Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile” (Ps. 34:14),
a sentence that comes in the concluding prayer of every Amidah. But what tends to happen when someone simply can’t stop talking is that the talk becomes nothing more than background noise and the words mean nothing.
So much can be done in a constructive way with “a word fitly spoken” which, according to King Solomon in the Book of Proverbs, is “like apples of gold in settings of silver” (Prov. 25:11).
Just as a person should be careful about where they spend their money, so they should watch their words and not be over-garrulous. Using too many words is a waste of the capacity of speech.
The best advice is, if you have something useful to say, speak up – or otherwise remain silent. Remember the old saying,
“When I kept silent they thought I might be a fool. When I spoke they knew I was.”
Everyone knows that they shouldn’t desecrate the Name of God. We call that “Chillul HaShem”. Chillul applies in many contexts including, as this week’s Torah reading puts it, “desecrating ‘kod’shei B’nei Yisra’el’, the sacred things of the Children of Israel” (Lev. 22:15). Not treating sacred things properly is the subject of a grave warning in the Pir’kei Avot (3:11), “He who profanes holy things and despises the festivals… has no portion in the world to come”.
This passage could well be a response to the wicked son of the Haggadah. That son has a good mind amply stocked with learning and knowledge, but he scoffs at the practices and traditions about which he knows so much. He says to his father or whoever is conducting the Seder, “What does this procedure mean to you?”
The Haggadah notes that he doesn’t say “to us” but “to you”, since he disassociates himself from the sanctities of the Jewish people. He can give you a whole academic discourse about the history, linguistics, sociology and comparative theology of Jewish practice, but he doesn’t identify with it. His mind is engaged – but not his heart.
So what do we do? The Haggadah says, “hak’heh et shinav”, which most people translate, “Blunt his teeth!” Whatever this means, it clearly suggests, “Tell him off!”
It could be, however, that a better translation is “Rebut his distortions”: talk to him and with him, and try to reason with him and persuade him that he is wrong. If this works, well and good; if not, remember the story of the man who came looking for Yankel the Apikoros (the unbeliever) and found Yankel studying a page of G’mara. “Are you really Yankel the unbeliever?” he stammered. “Of course I am Yankel,” said the man who was studying G’mara, “But I’m an unbeliever, not an ignoramus!”
If the rasha is an unbeliever, time will hopefully warm his heart.
WHEN GOD GETS IT RIGHT
The laws of the festivals form part of this week’s sidra, including the law of Sukkot. The building of the sukkah is given a historical explanation:
“So that your generations may know that I made the Children of Israel dwell in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43).
As God’s providence preserved our ancestors in their flimsy dwellings in the wilderness, so does His protection enable us to survive the fragility of life in every generation.
There is an interesting question. Why do we blame God when things go wrong but fail to thank Him when things go well?
Human beings have always known the problem of evil, which asks how a good God can allow pain and suffering. It is an especially pertinent question in the post-Holocaust era. Some have given up on God because they accuse Him of letting them down. Some, without realising there is a precedent in the Book of Job, speak of putting God on trial for what He did or failed to do.
But if there is a problem of evil, there is also a problem of good. If there is undeserved suffering and we accuse God over it, there is also undeserved goodness. How can we take our blessings for granted and fail to admit that there are times when God gets it right?
If we are disturbed that there was so much pain, suffering and martyrdom, should we not equally rejoice over the fact that the Jewish people, however attenuated, has come through, that Israel, however grievously assailed, has survived, and that Judaism, however misunderstood and maligned, has continued to flourish?
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.