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How Counting the Omer Speaks to Our Collective Responsibility

April 12, 2012
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On the second night of Passover, observant Jews began a practice known as S'firat Ha-Omer, counting the barley sheaf, a ritual counting of each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.

For many Jews, S'firat Ha-Omer is obscure, even irrelevant. This is a shame, for it speaks to an important value, one that our society needs now when issues such as affordable and universal health care press upon us.

The practice of S'firat Ha-Omer has its roots in Jewish agricultural history: Passover saw the onset of the barley harvest; at Shavuot, it concluded. On the second day of Passover, the first sheaf of a barley harvest was given as a gift to God. Alongside this gift, the worshipper offered humble bread (think matzah), as a sacrifice. He or she then marked, day by day, the passing of seven weeks till Shavuot, when he or she was asked to bring two loaves of leavened bread (think challah) as a sacrifice.
Both matzah and challah are made from the same ingredients, but end up differently. Matzah is hurried, not yet complete. It is bread, just barely. Challah is a finished product. Crafting it involves not only mixing the ingredients, but also kneading the dough, letting it rise, fashioning it into loaves and heating them just right.
Now consider that, according to Jewish tradition, Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot marks the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. No longer simply two ends of an agricultural season, the two festivals celebrate liberation and law, freedom and collective responsibility. The Exodus exalts human freedom, and the Torah insists on the obligations we have toward each other borne of that freedom: our collective responsibilities to care for the injured, to attend to those in peril and not to remain indifferent to others' suffering.

In this light, the bread offerings take on symbolic significance: matzah represents freedom; challah responsibility. Both breads contain the same ingredients, but only one bread is realized. In other words, the breads were meant to remind the ancient worshipper that while the freedom of Exodus was necessary, freedom is not fulfilled without the responsibility of Torah.

In between bringing these two symbolic gifts, one must count seven weeks, which are called weeks of "perfection" by the Torah. Why? To underscore the fact that, just as one must work hard to "perfect" bread, freedom is only perfected by cultivating, through patience and hard work, a sense of responsibility. S'firat Ha-Omer reminds us that, while freedom is a prerequisite, it is insufficient if we are not obligated to ensure the welfare of others.

In this regard, the practice has a great deal to teach. One urgent illustration is the recent national debate over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether or not the law is an effective solution to the nation's many healthcare challenges. Yet this did not appear to be the thrust of the conversation in the halls of the U.S. Supreme Court or on the court's steps, in the media and in many of our communities. Instead, the debate seemed to be framed as pitting supporters of the law against "freedom" and "liberty."

This argument is not only a distortion of the law, but also, for Jews, it is a betrayal of our core values.  To decry the reform, and chiefly its "individual mandate," as an assault on freedom is to argue in the words of Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, for an "absence of shared responsibility, community, or real concern for those who don't want anything so much as healthy children, or to be cared for when they are old."

Of course, reasonable interpreters of the Jewish tradition can argue for or against the law. But if the debate is not about the merits of a law, and is rather about the freedom to be left alone versus the responsibility to ensure the welfare of everyone in our society -- especially the most vulnerable -- then our tradition's stance, illuminated by the journey sketched out through S'firat Ha-Omer, is clear. Judaism insists that freedom is a precious gift, but it is ultimately meaningless if it does not inspire us to collective responsibility.
This season, as we move from Passover to Shavuot, we are invited to count -- and, as a result, I hope,we also will be inspired to be counted upon to ensure that everyone in our society is properly cared for.

Rabbi Michael Knopf is assistant rabbi at Temple Har Zion.

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