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An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
Now the question is what exactly is this doing in the Parshat Hamo'adim? Technically speaking it doesn't really seem to be a Holiday, it seems to be invading the Parshat Hamo'adim. For that matter there's another non-Holiday event actually in the Parshat Hamo'adim and it's the laws of Leket and Pe'ah. Now these are the laws that dictate that you shouldn't reap all the wheat from the corners of your field, you should leave those for the poor, and if there's some gleanings that are left on the ground as you begin to harvest the wheat so you should leave those for the poor also. So these are very nice laws but they're not really attached to any particular moment of the calendar either, and they're not Holidays, so what's Omer doing here and what's the laws of Leket and Pe'ah doing here?
For good measure, let me just throw in another question here about a technicality having to do with the Omer, which is when exactly is the Omer offering brought? It says that it's supposed to be brought Mimacharat HaShabbat, which literally means the day after the Sabbath. So the question of course is the day after which Sabbath? I mean, there's a lot of Sabbaths during the year. So this has led to the famous dispute between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees look at this and they say, well the last Holiday we talked about right before the Omer was Passover and then we hear that the day after the Sabbath you're supposed to bring this Omer offering, so they think it means that whenever Passover begins, so you look at the Sabbath that happens after that, and then the Sunday after that Sabbath that's when you bring the Omer offering. That would be the day after the Sabbath, in the words of the text. So that seems to make perfectly reasonably sense, but that's not what the Pharisees say.
Most modern Israelites living today were descendants of the Pharisees, and according the Pharisees, the word Sabbath as used in the text here is actually a reference to the first day of Passover. So the day after the Sabbath means the day after the first day of Passover. And you know, that actually seems a little strange because if the Bible wanted us to celebrate this on the first day after Passover, just say celebrate on the first day after Passover, don't get all ambiguous on us and refer to the first day of Passover as Sabbath. What if the first day of Passover falls out on a Wednesday?
So how do we understand the Pharisees' position here? How do we understand what the laws of Omer are doing here? How do we understand what the laws of Leket and Pe'ah are doing here?
I think that the key to answering all of these questions is actually locked up in an understanding of the Pharisees' position about calling the first day of Passover, Sabbath. There's a reason you would call the first day of Passover, Sabbath, because it really is Sabbath. Let me take you back to an idea that I discussed last year in Parshat Emor and Parshat Behar. If you look at Parshat Hamo'adim you will find two numbers recurring over and over again in the dates, in the times, and those numbers are ones and sevens. It almost seems like you're in this parallel universe where the only numbers there are, are ones and sevens. You can look at the Holidays and you'll see what I mean. Passover it's in the first month, how long does it last for, for seven days. Which days are holy? The first day is holy, the seventh day is holy. Then you're supposed to count seven times seven days and then there's another Holiday, on the day after seven times seven days. This just keeps on going.
As an explanation of this phenomenon I suggested a theory that in effect all of the Mo'adim are actually manifestations of the idea of Sabbath within the cycle of the year. The Sabbath itself is a Holiday that recurs weekly, but perhaps there are other Sabbath events that occur during the year, and we call these the Mo'adim - the Holidays?
The very first of these is actually Passover. Sabbath involves a kind of rest from the creative process and Passover also involves a kind of rest from the creative process. What kind of creative process? The process by which man creatively dominates the world of plants. To see it, let's talk about how you make bread - and here I'm reviewing a bit from last year. It begins with the planting of wheat. Wheat as a grain is lush and ripe and vibrant, but then you harvest the grain, which is really just a euphemism for cutting it down and killing it. But grain dies slowly because it's a plant, it needs to be deprived of water over time, you leave it out in the fields to die a slow death and it gets to be brittle and crumbly. Then you take the wheat and you strip it away and all you want is the seeds. The seeds which the wheat could use to reproduce itself, but you take those seeds and you smash them, destroying the wheat's last chance to be able to perpetuate itself, and you have flour.
Then when you're good and done, because this process was a process of deprivation of water from the wheat, what do you do? Just when it's too late to actually help the wheat grow and recuperate anymore you add water to the flour. In so doing you bring it back to life, because the flour and water, that mixture together, the dough, actually becomes alive through the naturally occurring yeast that is on the side of the husks of wheat. Yeast is an organism and when it comes into the bread it lives, it has CO2 that's exhaled by the yeast that causes the bread to rise. So just when the flour is dead you bring it back to life again, only to kill it once more when you put the dough in the oven. As the baking bread gets warmer and warmer the yeast becomes more and more active, rising even more, until the temperature is too hot, killing the yeast, the yeast explodes into the bread. And you take the bread out of the oven and now it becomes the staff of life for human beings, it keeps us alive now.
But we have dominated the plants, exerted our creative control over them in making this bread and acting like G-d, creating and dominating the world, molding it to suit our needs - always needs a time to stop, to pull back. The great teaching of Sabbath is that creativity cannot go on forever, it must be halted, otherwise it is a juggernaut that runs away with itself. G-d the great creator in the sky, He rested, He stopped, and we stop too, we take a break from a process of bread making on Passover. It's our day of rest, with reference to the world of vegetation. So there is a certain logic to the Pharisees' position that the first day of Passover is called Sabbath, it really is a Sabbath event.
But here's a nagging question you might have when pondering this all. You might say to yourself, well that's a very fine theory about Passover being Sabbath-like because we're taking a break from this kind of way that we dominate the plant world. But if you think about it there's actually two cycles of life and death that we bring in to the plant world in the process of bread making and we're really only taking a break from one of them. You see you can divide them up into the life and death cycle of planting the wheat, harvesting it and killing it, and then the second life and death cycle is when you add water to the wheat and bring it back to life and then throw it into the oven and kill it again. Now I get that on Passover we take a break from the second one, but it's not really a Shabbos from the whole thing, what about the first part of the cycle, where is the Sabbath event for that part of the domination of plant life involved in bread making?
There is a Sabbath-like event for that part of the process and it actually coincides with the Sabbath-like event for the other part of the process. What do you do on the day after this great Sabbath we've been talking about - this Passover event? You bring the Omer offering. But what does the Omer offering do? It allows you to eat from the new crop of grain. The grain that you planted, brought life to and then you killed through harvesting, you can't touch that. You're in Sabbath mode with respect to that all the way until the day after the first day of Passover, which means the first day of Passover is the one moment where you're actually resting from both parts of the bread making cycle. You're not eating from the new wheat yet because you haven't brought the Omer, and you're not eating Chametz. And that I believe is what the laws of the Omer are doing in these Holidays.
You see the Holidays they're about Sabbath-like events. Paired with the Sabbath-like event of Passover is the Sabbath-like event of refraining from eating the new crop of wheat until the Omer is brought to allow you to have it. The Omer is about the larger Sabbath theme that these Holidays are about, so of course it belongs here.
Then you ask why a few verses later do we have the laws of Leket and Pe'ah? They might not be Holidays but what are they about? They're about resting from domination of the world of vegetation too. It's a different kind of rest. G-d says it's not just enough for you to rest with reference to Me, this isn't just about Me, you've got to rest with reference to your fellow man too. There's poor people out there, strangers who don't have land. Don't just content yourself on Passover with your abolition of Chametz and think that you're done with resting from your domination of plants. Don't just bring your Omer offering, congratulate yourself on being able to eat the new crops. That same imperative to rest requires you to relinquish domination of your field of wheat and allow the poor and the stranger to reap nature's bounty as well.
The bottom line is that man is given dominion over the world, and part of that includes dominion over plant life and vegetation. That power to dominate the world of plants is awesome in scope, that power has fuelled the rise of human civilization, you can't have cities and towns unless you have a reliable source of food. But if you're hunters and gatherers you don't have the luxury of settling down and building a city or a town, you always have to move on to the next hunt, you only get to stay put if you can cultivate crops where you are. So our ability to dominate the world of plants is crucial to us, it's our creative prowess unleashed upon the world of vegetation.
But that ability to cultivate and mould the world must have some boundaries. Some of those boundaries are designed to help you understand that there's people other than you that need to get fed. There are those who lower than you, so to speak, on the socioeconomic ladder. But we also rest in deference to those who are higher than us, because we are only little creator, there is a Big Creator in the sky, the ultimate Master in the Universe, and rest teaches us that there are those below us and there are those above us, and both need to be acknowledged. But we cannot usurp that place, we cannot overshadow the poor, and we cannot overshadow G-d.