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D'varim/Deuteronomy 16:9 Seven weeks you shall count for yourself ...
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This text comes from the tradition festival readings for the last day of Pesach: Moshe's repetition of the annual feast cycle to the Children of Israel as they waited on the Plains of Moab to go into the Promised Land. In just a few weeks time, they would be celebrating the festival of Pesach and the week of matzah for the first time in the Land of Israel as we read in Joshua chapter 4. Moshe wants to be sure that the people understand how the counting is to work: "You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain" (D'varim 16:9, JPS). The start of the count is tied to the agricultural event: work will have stopped for the day of Pesach itself (the 15thNisan), then immediately on the next day (the 16th) the ceremonial omer (sheaf) that marks the start of the barley harvest is cut and brought in to the Temple as the Early Firstfruits wave offering. The count is to start that evening, counting seven weeks until the festival of Shavuot (Weeks). The original instructions, given in the desert when the setting up of the Tabernacle and the operation of the priestly cult was in everyone's mind, tells the same story from the ritual point of view: "And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering -- the day after the sabbath -- you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week -- fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the L-RD" (Vayikra 23:15-16, JPS). Seven weeks plus one day; forty-nine plus one equals fifty1.
Pesikta de Rab Kahana takes the days of the Omer as an image of life. Rabbi Samuel the son of Rabbi Isaac reports that the Sages were considering banning the book of Ecclesiastes because of Solomon's advice: "O youth, enjoy yourself while you are young! Let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth. Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes" (Ecclesiastes 11:9, JPS). This, they considered, was not only wanton, but contradicted Moshe who had commanded, "Do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge" (B'Midbar 15:39, JPS). But then they saw that Solomon finished his verse with the warning, "But know well that G-d will call you to account for all such things" (Ecclesiastes 11:9, JPS), they decided that Solomon had spoken well after all (Piska 8:1).
TheMishnah records a saying of Rabbi Akiva: "Everything is given against a pledge, and a net is spread out over all the living;2 the store is open and the Storekeeper allows credit, but the ledger is open and the hand writes, and whoever wishes to borrow may come and borrow; but the collectors go round regularly every day and exact dues from man, either with his consent or without his consent, and they have that on which they [can] rely [in their claims], seeing that the judgement is a righteous judgement, and everything is prepared for the banquet" (m. Pirkei Avot 3:16). This is interpreted as being a parable about HaShem and His relationship with mankind; He is the Storekeeper, allowing credit - license - to all, but keeping a record of all things. While credit is allowed, repayment will be collected, whether each person is happy about that or not. When the banquet is ready, all accounts will be settled, one way or the other. Perhaps this is why the Psalmist says, "So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12, ESV); we become wise when we have correctly numbered our days and are always ready to repay our borrowings from G-d. If we keep our debt small, keeping short accounts and always reckoning our debt against the day of repayment, then we will not fear the collector, since we will be ready for him at any time.
Yeshua told a story about a man who gave a banquet. "A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come, for everything is now ready'" (Luke 14:16-17, ESV)3. Invitations had been written, sent out and accepted some while before, but when the moment arrived, when the banquet was ready - as was the custom in those days - the host sent messengers to tell those who had been invited that it was time to come. "But they all alike began to make excuses" (v. 18, ESV). Here "all alike" can be translated "all at once", "at once" or "unanimously". Different excuses are made - buying a field, buying oxen, getting married - but the guests decline to come and ask to be excused: unanimously, as if one. None of the excuses would have been regarded as significant compared to the guest keeping his word and attending the feast. When the master heard this, he became angry. This was a significant social snub by the invitees: they knew they had been invited, they had acknowledged the invitation and signalled their intention to come. Others are brought in to the feast in their place and the master declares, "none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet" (v. 24, ESV). The men who had been invited knew when the feast would be, they had the date on their calendar and had replied to say they would come. Then they either forgot, so arranged other things for that time, or simply didn't bother to watch the calendar and were taken unawares.
The period of counting the omer appears again at the beginning of the book of Acts. There, Luke tells us, "[Yeshua] presented Himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of G-d. And while staying with them He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, He said, 'you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now'" (Acts 1:3-5, ESV). This is first forty days of counting the omer in that year, since Yeshua rose on the day of Early Firstfruits. When He tells them to wait in Jerusalem for just a few days, this is not an open-ended instruction, this is for only ten days until the feast of Shavuot comes - as it always does - at the end of that fifty day count. Counting the omer is a short and easy test of obedience that comes round again each year. It is only fifty days, never more and never less; it starts at a clearly defined point, the evening of the second night of Pesach, and it simply counts through fifty sequential days including Shabbat, to reach Shavuot. In synagogue we count it in weeks and days: one week and three days ... two weeks and four days ... six weeks and one day ... until we get to seven weeks and one day - Shavuot!
More difficult are those times when we have to wait for something to happen, rather than for a fixed time. Nevertheless, Scripture still expects us to be ready. Yeshua told a number of parables about this - the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Master away on a Journey - and alluded to it in several others. What is clear is that not only are we to be ready, but we will be judged or assessed on what we have been doing while we are waiting, how we have used our time and what we have contributed to the kingdom of G-d. Using a construction metaphor, Rav Sha'ul writes about the foundation laid by Messiah Yeshua and adds, "Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw -- each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Corinthians 3:12-15, ESV).
Now, we do not know when "that day" will be, be it the day when Yeshua returns, or the day that He calls us individually across the Jordan into His presence. Because we cannot know the specific day, we cannot run a count-down to make sure that everything is done. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus said: "Repent one day before your death." His disciples asked him, "Does then one know on what day he will die?" "Then all the more reason that he repent to-day," he replied, "lest he die to-morrow, and thus his whole life is spent in repentance" (b. Shabbat 153a). If we prepare ourselves each day as if it were our last in this life, then we will always be ready for "that day". Equally, we have responsibilities to earn a living, to raise children and families, to provide pensions and houses and to leave an inheritance - spiritual as well as material - for the next generation. Being ready, therefore, does not mean short-termism and taking arbitrary decisions as if tomorrow or next week didn't exist. It does mean holding everything in a considered and prayerful tension and keeping our spiritual slate clean. Rav Sha'ul gives an example: "Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil" (Ephesians 4:26-27, ESV); anger may be necessary and appropriate, but it must be kept in bounds and not carried forward to another day or allowed to grow.
The omer provides an opportunity to wait, count and number a short block of days, knowing the outcome is both possible and achievable; Shavuot will come! We can develop our patience and endurance obeying a simple command. Won't you join us this year?
Chag Matzot Sameach!
1. - Hence the Greek name for the feast: Pentecost.
2. - The form of words, "the net is spread out", comes from Ezekiel 32:3
3. - In Matthew, this is the story of the King and the wedding feast (Matthew 22:2ff).
Further Study: Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4
Application: If you have never counted the omer, why not give it a try this year? The count starts on the evening of the day after Pesach and there are a number of reading schedules on-line giving sets of readings through the Psalms or the Prophets to provide a theme leading up to Shavuot/Pentecost. You can do it too!
© Jonathan Allen, 2015
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