TEEmail_April 2014_Denker

This Week in Torah

Parshat Kedoshim

Leviticus 19:1-20:27

Amos 9:7-15

Past Passover, Where are you Going Now?

This year, the first Torah reading after Passover includes Leviticus 20:27: “A man or woman who has a ghost within them or a familiar spirit will certainly die…  they are responsible for their own death.”  Textually, this comes at the end of the Holiness Code’s (Leviticus chapters19 & 20) comprehensive list of capital crimes, including sorcery.  Interpretively, The Raibal reads this verse as a spiritual advisement for The Omer – the period of counting seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot.

In the agrarian world of the Bible, Passover marked the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the grain harvest.  As the grain came in, it was to be counted by the omer, a volumetric measure of about 3 2/3 liters or just under a gallon of barley.  The tithe, a basic 10% flat-rate tax, was ‘withheld’ by setting one omer out of ten aside for God.  The grain harvest took about seven weeks and ended just in time for Shavuot, The Feast of Weeks, when fruit started to ripen on the tree.

Classic rabbinic calculation associated this period with the time it took for the newly freed Hebrews, to progress from slavery to Mt. Sinai where, through Moses our Teacher, The Law was received.  Law, in this case, is The Torah and the Tradition built upon it as the direction for a better life in this world and the guidebook for achieving an eternal presence in the universe.  In this way, our rabbis teach the same lesson that we have talked about at TEE and that columnist David Brooks expressed in a recent NY Times op ed., namely that freedom is meaningless without a law and social order.  Well-governed and relatively predictable personal and communal life is a necessary condition for freedom and growth.

Counting the Omer keeps this spiritual reality in our consciousness as a daily reminder that the sacred history of the journey from Egypt to Sinai must be reflected in our present-day commitment to receiving Torah today. 

For The Raibal, the ‘ghost within’ represents today’s Jew whose observance of Passover reflects only the ‘ghost’ of parents or grandparents, without continuing the evolution of our Tradition by bringing something of her or himself to the table.  The ‘familiar spirit’ is the person who sticks only to what he or she thinks they know – without seriously venturing forth into the wilderness to approach Sinai through study, Jewish engagement and receiving Torah as a living presence in their life.    Those who stick to these familiar ghosts risk the death of their own spirits and the demise of Judaism.

Since the Messiah did not, so far as we can tell, arrive this Passover we are still, as every year, commanded to Count the Omer of our souls and proceed together to Sinai.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Steve Denker