Friday, May 17, 2024

It's Not A Fairy Tale


Barley swaying in the wind (Israel)

Israelis agonized over the appropriate way to mark this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). Thousands of people have lost their loved ones; 132 hostages remain in captivity. Every day is filled with anxiety about the safety of the soldiers and the future of the country. The thought of holding celebrations seems absurd.

But at issue is not just the propriety and etiquette of rejoicing during times of grief. The more significant question is: After October 7th, can we still see Israel as the harbinger of redemption?


Redemption is often seen as a fix-all, the remedy for every problem. But that was never God’s plan. Redemption was meant to be combined with reality.


We often forget what the conclusion of the Pesach is meant to be. Pesach is often depicted as an account of liberation from slavery, of the Jews achieving freedom from Pharaoh’s oppression. But that is not where the story ends.


Pesach is also the start of Jewish sovereignty. When God declares to Moses (Exodus 6:6-8) that he will redeem the Jews, it ends with the words “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession.” Similarly, the declaration of the bikkurim, (Deuteronomy 26:5-10) made at the farmer’s annual offering of first fruits, tells of the slavery in Egypt and then concludes by saying, “He (God) brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Pharaoh being vanquished is only the beginning; the Exodus concludes with the Jews being a free people in their own homeland, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.


In Parshat Emor (Leviticus 23:5-15), Pesach has two distinct roles. The first day is a celebration of the Exodus, with the rituals of Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and the bitter herbs. Then the Bible introduces a ritual for the second day of Pesach: the Omer offering, a simple offering of barley. (This begins a 50-day period of counting days called Sefirat Ha’Omer, and on the 50th day is another holiday, Shavuot, on which two loaves of wheat bread are offered.)


With the Omer offering, Pesach shifts its focus to agriculture. Much like Sukkot, Pesach marks both a historical event and an agricultural season. For that reason Pesach is always celebrated during the spring, when the first shoots of barley appear; and the Omer offering is brought in prayer for the crops in the fields.


But why isn’t the Omer offering brought on the first day of Pesach? Why is it brought one day after the Pesach Seder?


Another biblical text sheds light on this question. In the Book of Joshua, we are told about the Jews' entrance into the land of Israel, just four days before Pesach. Then the text says:


On the day after Pesach, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened bread and parched grain. On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna; that year they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan. (5:11-12)


There is a debate on how to interpret this text. But many, like the Rambam, read this as saying that in the days of Joshua, the second day of Pesach is when the Jews first ate from the produce of the land. At that point, they no longer depended on the daily miracle of Manna; they could now take their destiny into their own hands.


Itamar Kislev explains that this is why the Omer is brought specifically on the second day of Pesach. The Omer is both an agricultural and historical ritual; it also was initially intended to commemorate the first Pesach in Israel, when the Jews first ate the produce of the land of Israel. This was the goal of redemption, and only then was the Exodus complete.


In short, the first day of Pesach commemorates the freedom from slavery, and the second day commemorates the beginnings of sovereignty. The two are inextricably intertwined. Freedom was meant to lead to independence, with the former slaves taking control of their own destiny in their own homeland.


However, sovereignty is not at all simple. Manna, miracle bread from heaven, is effort-free; farming is difficult and uncertain. 


This may be why the days of the Omer are seen as tragic. The mourning rituals we practice during the Omer mark the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the Bar Kochva revolt. However, the Kabbalistic view is that the days of the Omer are inherently melancholy, with each day filled with anxiety.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik elaborates on this Kabbalistic sense of dread in his essay Pesach and the Omer. He points out that Pesach “represents the transcendental order in Jewish history, or, shall I say, the order of Revelation.”


But transcendental experiences must eventually end. As he puts it, “Life is full of absurdities and contradictions. There is no longer any revelation… any direct contact with God.” In a new land, surrounded by enemies, Israel will have to confront multiple challenges. Nature is not always cooperative, and every harvest is fraught with uncertainty.


The contrast between the miraculous Exodus and the humble barley offering could not be greater. After celebrating a transcendent divine redemption at the Seder, who has any appetite for a grueling, messy, state?


But that is precisely the point. Life is not a fairy tale. Mistakes happen, accidents happen, and eventually, death happens. We don’t see God’s outstretched arm every day.


The same is true of a country. There will be enemies and wars. Nothing will ever be perfect, and at times, everything will seem to go wrong.


So it is understandable if some wonder whether it is possible to still say Hallel for a flawed country where the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust occurred. Bitterness and cynicism certainly make sense right now.


This is why the second day of Pesach, the day of the Omer, is so significant. The dramatic redemption of the Exodus sets an unattainable standard, one that makes ordinary life seem absurd. But that is the wrong way to look at redemption. Instead, one needs to find transcendence in the humble barley offering.


Farmers labor each year by the sweat of their brow to produce a crop. Some years are successful, and some years are failures. It may seem absurd to continue. Yet the farmer perseveres; that is heroic. Each year, the first shoots of barley brought in the Omer tells the story of those farmers.


Yom Ha’atzmaut this year resembles the Omer offering; humble, unassuming, and seemingly unworthy of center stage. But like the bowl of barley, what needs to be celebrated right now is not the beauty of what we hold in our hands, but the enormous effort it represents.


Since October 7th we have seen so many do so much to keep Israel together. Young and not-so-young soldiers picked up at a moment's notice and ran to the battlefield to fight for their country. Everyone else in Israel took care of everything else, from cooking meals, taking in evacuees, and packing gear for soldiers. And Jews from around the world stepped up with advocacy, philanthropy, and volunteering.


This is Israel’s Omer offering, humble yet remarkable at the same time.


And that is worth celebrating.

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