Word of Torah

Word of Torah: Parashat Acharei-Kedoshim

Written by: Rabbi Emily Segal 

Dear Friends,

The very first time I taught Sunday school, I was given a class of 1st graders in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Little did I know that after just their first year of Sunday School in kindergarten, this was a class known to be “spirited.”  They certainly were energetic, and I loved them.  I loved their energy and their sweet faces and the enthusiasm with which they would jump into every activity.  They were happy to soak up every bit of Judaism I could offer them.  I was exhausted by 12pm every Sunday, but what a treat they were!

There were certainly more than a few memorable moments from those Sunday mornings, a there is one I often think of when it’s this time of year.  Part of our curriculum was to cover the Jewish holidays.  So after we finished our unit on Passover, I was moving along to teach the class about Shavuot, which falls 50 days later on our Jewish calendar.  We talked about the Israelites escaping, crossing the Sea of Reeds, and celebrated that ourselves with a Miriam-inspired dance party.  Then we talked about how just a little while later, God gave the Israelites a special gift: the Torah.  And that is actually a gift that God gave to each of us, each of them as well.  An excited murmur went through my young little crowd.  I asked them if they knew what is in the Torah.  And they answered well—Words. Hebrew.  Stories.  A bunch of stuff about God.  Things. Stuff.  (It got a bit silly.)

And I added one to their list: lots and lots of rules.  And that’s what a lot of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei-Kedoshim, is about.  Important rules about what they should do and how they should act.  Rules that helped the Israelites learn how to be kind to everyone and how to make sure to help other people and how to live happy, healthy, good lives.  And that those rules weren’t just for the Israelites but they are also for us; they teach us how to live in the right way and to make the world a better place right now.

I was feeling really good about this.  They seemed rapt.

Then a particularly precocious young man spoke up.  “Waaaaaaait a minute.  Are you telling me that the Israelites JUST escaped from Pharaoh in Egypt, and Pharaoh made them follow all sorts of rules.  And they were finally free.  And then God told them ‘Sorry, here are a whole bunch of new rules!  Lots of them!?”  Taken a bit aback, I started to reply. “Well…Yes, at least sort of.  But these rules…” And he stopped me “So first they were slaves to Pharaoh and then they escaped just to be GOD’S SLAVES!!?” 

My little scholar was aghast.  And a bit triumphant I think. We had some recontextualizing to do, yes, but he had been listening!

As Jason wrote about last week, during this period of time between the beginning of Passover and when Shavuot falls, which moves us from our collective remembering of slavery to our collective memory of receiving the commandments, many Jewish individuals and communities “Count the Omer.”  Beginning on the 2nd night of Passover, one “Counts the Omer,” counting “a week of weeks,” 49 days, that mark the time between the beginning of Passover and the beginning of Shavuot (the 50th day), from the wheat harvest to the barley harvest.  In ancient days, this marked a certain offering, an Omer referring to a measure of grain.  This passage of time from Passover to Shavuot also began to serve as a period of spiritual preparation, moving us from slavery to a state of readiness to receive the Torah. 

I was not raised with the custom of counting the Omer.  But in our world today, it can be an incredibly rich process.  One of my favorite quotes from all of Jewish scripture is from Psalm 90:12-- “Teach us to number our days, so that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”  There is power even in the simple counting, so that no day goes by unnoticed.  And it is a human desire to count—days of the week, months of the year, days until a waited-for event (with my kids, “only X more sleeps until Grandma visits!” is a common refrain), years of marriage, years of life, years that have passed since…  This helps us feel the rhythm of the year and the years and makes us feel like they are not just slipping by. 

This year, I have decided to make personal mini-goals for each week of the Omer.  The first week I resolved to mindfully breathe and de-stress three times a day.   The second week of the Omer, I resolved to decompress more with my books than with my mindless television at the end of the day.  This third week of the Omer, I am reading a substantive article from a different Jewish news source every day.  Nothing major, I know, but on the principle that the little things make the big things, I think it will be a really helpful practice. 

Think with me about the Omer.  Whether or not you choose to count the Omer, even considering the practice could be a lovely way to reign in the passing of time and to ponder what it is that give our days value aside from crossing them off the calendar once each day is complete.

Wishing each of you and those you love a peaceful Shabbat and a meaningful remainder of the period of the Omer.


Rabbi Segal