Sermon for Erev Shabbat 5777, April 21, 2017

Can Counting the Omer Save Western Civilization?

April 21, 2017

This sermon is entitled “Can counting the Omer save Western civilization?”  It is a rather presumptuous title for what may be an absurd idea.  Let me share with you where the idea for this sermon originated.

One of my favorite op-ed writers, David Brooks, a Jewish Republican who writes for the New York Times, recently wrote a piece (April 21, 2017) on the rise of authoritarian governments and the decline of Western liberalism.  Brooks laments that faith in the ideals of Western civilization is falling all around us and few are rising to defend Western ideals.  Brooks writes, “Western civilization has inherent values- the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated.  It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like.  It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals…the first consequence of the decline is the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only do not believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative but don’t even pretend to believe in them as former dictators did.  Over the past few years, especially, we have entered the age of Putin, Erdogan, el-Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.”  Brooks’ point is well made.  There has been a decline in democracy across the world and few are rising to protect it.

Democracy depends upon a belief in the value of the individual, that every person has inherent rights, that we are each created in the image of our Creator.  It demands a belief that we have the ability as a community to determine our future.  Democracy tells us that the future is not fixed, it is not a re-play of the past, but is determined through the collective action in which each citizen has an important part.  Democracy, though, would be unimaginable without Jews and the Jewish experience.  Allow me to explain.

Until the time of the Exodus, which we just celebrated during Pesach, all ancient peoples believed that the present and future would just be a rewind of the past.  There was no such thing as history, just the passing of the seasons.  Nothing was more important than ensuring the winter rains so the crops would grow in the spring and be harvested in the fall, guaranteeing that the community would not starve during the long, fallow months.  With the Exodus, our ancestors changed the concept of time.  There was an unknown future whose direction and end we cannot predict.  As Thomas Cahill wrote in The Gifts of the Jews (page 131), “…for the first time the future holds out promise.  Even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future through their actions in the present.  We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate:  we are free.  If anything can happen, we are truly liberated- as liberated as were the Israelite slaves when they crossed the Sea of Reeds.”

Liberation, however, was not enough.  Freedom without responsibility yields to anarchy.  From the Sea of Reeds, we journeyed to Mt. Sinai where we received the Torah.  We became bound to God and God’s law, an event we mark on Shavuot.  Cahill wrote (page 156) “…these laws remain testimony to the fact that the Jews were the first people to develop an integrated view of life and its obligations.  Rather than imagining the demands of law and the demands of wisdom as discrete realms, they imagined that all of life, having come from the Author of life, was to be governed by a single outlook.  The material and spiritual, the intellectual and the moral were one.”  Cahill goes on to say that the literary prophets encapsulated the beliefs that underpin democracy.  He says (page 239) they taught us that “There are right choices and wrong choices. To make the right choices I must consult the law of God written in my heart.  I must listen to God’s voice, which speaks not only to great leaders but to me.  I must take the I seriously.” 

Democracy could not exist without the belief in the importance of the individual, that what we do and think matters, that we have the ability to determine our individual and collective futures.  That is the great gift of the Jews, one that is being threatened by the collapse of democratic ideals around the world.  So where does the counting of the Omer fit in?

“The omer refers to the 49-day period between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. This period marks the beginning of the barley harvest when, in ancient times, we would bring the first sheaves to the Temple as a means of thanking God for the harvest. The word omer literally means “sheaf” and refers to these early offerings.

The Torah itself dictates the counting of the seven weeks following Passover: “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”  In its biblical context, this counting appears only to connect the first grain offering to the offering made at the peak of the harvest. As Shavuot became associated with the giving of the Torah, and not only with a celebration of agricultural bounty, the omer period began to symbolize the thematic link between Passover and Shavuot. While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards. Counting up to Shavuot reminds us of this process of moving from a slave mentality to a more liberated one.”[i]

The counting of the Omer reminds us that we move from freedom to responsibility, from liberation to law, from God to humanity.  As the Jewish people accepts the Torah on Mt. Sinai we collectively and individually become in charge of our fate.  The future is yet to be written.  Together we will determine what shall be.  That is the essence of democracy which is so threatened today- authoritarian leaders tell the people what they want without allowing the people to choose what they want.  The counting of the Omer, to which we now turn, contains a most powerful message- that the growth of the barley, as the growth and change inherent within each person, is a gift from God which, like democracy, needs to be cherished and protected.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

[i] My Jewish Learning

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