Melissa Werbow | Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23.
When my husband and I were preparing for our wedding, we met weekly with Reb Mimi Feigelson at her apartment. One December day as we were leaving, I noticed a Post-it note on the back of the front door that read “Don’t forget to count the omer!”
Why on earth was the omer something she was reminding herself about at Chanukah? For those who count, the omer can be a very serious business. Missing just one day in the seven weeks can knock you out of reciting the blessing for the rest of the period. But seven weeks is a very long time to remember a new daily task — even with omer calendars and phone reminders. Reb Mimi needed that year-round reminder to ensure she remembered to count.
In Parshat Emor, we are instructed to count the omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. Why are Passover and Shavuot connected in this way? Passover is the celebration of our escape from Egypt and our freedom from slavery. But freedom in the Bible isn’t an invitation to do whatever we’d like. The Jewish people left slavery to Pharoah for service to God.
Shavuot, the day we commemorate the giving of Torah on Mount Sinai, is the second half of that equation. Passover is not complete without Shavuot. There is no freedom without Torah. Passover marks our physical redemption and Shavuot represents our spiritual redemption. The counting of the omer cements their connection.
It has come to be observed as a period of semi-mourning. Many Jews don’t celebrate weddings, listen to live music or cut their hair during this time. The Talmud tells us that this is a period of sadness because of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died during this period. There is some debate about why and how these students died. The Talmud tells us that they died of a plague because they did not treat each other with respect. Others suspect that the plague was the rabbis’ way of alluding to the unsuccessful revolt waged against the Roman Empire by Bar Kochba and backed by Rabbi Akiva.
So why are we still mourning them? In so many ways, this reminds us of the world we live in today. Mysterious illness, conspiracy theories, overwhelming death counts and disrespect in public forums could just as easily describe 2022 as 135. My guess is that although most of us can see the parallels, no matter which side of the political spectrum we are on, it is far easier to see the excesses of the other guy.
My congregation, Hill Havurah, is right behind the Supreme Court. So last week, after the leaked document on abortion, I walked over. I watched with tears streaming down my face as pro-abortion and anti-abortion protesters stood with their opposing signs and slogans. I cried remembering the six D&Cs (dilation and curettage) I’d had after failed pregnancies; and I cried for a friend who recently aborted a baby at 30 weeks, who would otherwise have been born into a short, painful life.
I was crying because I was angry at the thought that the right to an abortion might be taken away, but I was also crying at how hard it was for me to see the humanity of those on the other side.
As I count the rest of the omer this year, I’ll be thinking about how to be a better listener to those I disagree with and about how to show respect to the humans behind the opinions. Maybe that is something for which we could all use a year-round Post-it note.
Melissa Werbow is director of education for Hill Havurah.