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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Emor 5766
Leviticus 21:1–24:23
May 13, 2006     15 Iyyar 5766

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow

Israel is a land almost wholly dependent on the heavens above. As such, concern for one's crops is a dominant theme through the biblical and rabbinic periods. Far from being a land irrigated by a river flowing through its length as Egypt, Israel is dependent on the rains above — and the winds below. Accordingly, this week's Parashat Emor delineates the calendar year and very specifically addresses the period in which we find ourselves — the counting of the Omer from Passover to Shavu'ot. This interim time between two of the most significant Jewish festivals is a liminal moment. Caught between the festival of freedom and commemorating the receiving of Torah, we are wandering through the desert and through these weeks. And while this period is one of great anticipation, it is also a time of uncertainty — underscoring our dependence on a power far greater than ourselves.

Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, bases himself on a teaching from the Talmud when he dubs this period in the Jewish calendar "the seven weeks of trepidation and prayer." Why? Bava Batra 147a teaches, "The northern wind is beneficial to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening, and is damaging to olive trees when they have blossomed. The southern wind is damaging to wheat when it has reached a third of its ripening and is beneficial to olives when they have blossomed." The sensitivity to agricultural detail is remarkable. Attuned to nature, the rabbis recognized the fragile balance of wind and rain that influenced the success of their crops. For this reason, Hareuveni writes, "Each of these fifty days can bring either blessing to the crops or irreparable disaster. It was natural for the farmers of the land of Israel to count off each day with great trepidation and with prayers for surviving these fifty precarious days without crop damage" (Hareuveni, Nature in Our Biblical Heritage, 60). While farmers may have and continue to concern themselves with nature's actions, the rabbis turned this period of the Omer into one of reflection and introspection — and rightfully so. Each day we are given the opportunity to focus on another human quality: kindness, strength, splendor, etc.

If we, as Emil Fackenheim, believe that "the response from below calls forth a response from above," then our actions influence our surroundings. Just as we pay careful attention to the winds and rains, so too must we pay astute attention to our inner selves. If we are to yield fruit of our labors, then we too must be mindful enough to hone our inner qualities. Uncertainty is indeed unsettling; but it is also a gift, a present granted to us that ultimately helps us appreciate ourselves and the world around us.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz


The publication and distribution of the Taste of Torah commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.