The seven-week period between the Hebraic festivals of Passover and Shavu’ot is a period known as Sefirat Ha’Omer, or “the counting of the Omer,” reminiscent of the ancient 49-day ritual of the barley offering we once practiced as we counted the days between the onset of Spring and the advent of Summer — between the holiday of Passover and the festival of Shavuot (Leviticus 23:11)– between the time we wiggled our way out of the chains of bondage in Egypt to the time we received the Torah in what is now Saudi Arabia. O’mer means sheaf, as in a sheaf of barley, the first growth of Spring.
What exactly was the ritual of the sheaf offering? They would reap the first Spring growth of barley and gather the sheaves in baskets that they would then bring to the Temple Court. There they would singe the barley in such a way that the fire would reach all the grains. Then the smoking barley was spread across the floor of the Temple Court to be cooled off by the wind. Once the grasses were cooled, they would grind the barley so that the grain was separated from the husks. From the grain, they would then measure a tenth of an ephah of flour (approximately 35 liters) which was in turn sifted through thirteen filters before it was finally offered up on the altar (Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 10b).
What is the ritual of the barley offering? One waves the barley shoots in its season, first forward, then back, to ward off severe winds; then toward the sky, and then toward the earth to ward off severe rains. Others add: First inward and outward to the One to whom belongs all of the universe, then upward and downward to the One to whom belongs both the Upper Realms and the Lower Realms. Rabbi Shimon bar Lakish remarked: “Let not the ritual of the O’mer be a light thing in your eyes, for it is through this ritual that God promotes harmony between a man and a woman” (Midrash Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 8:5 [Pis’ka Chet, Ha’Omer, para. 11]).
Fascinating. Lift up a handful of barley and wave it forward and backward, then up and down, and not only will you ward off severe winds and rains, but you will also improve your relationship with your partner. Wow. What a religion.
And of all things: Barley! You’d think, maybe a pomegranate, or a handful of chocolate-covered peanuts. But barley? What is this obsession with barley? Forty-nine days of barley is enough to ward off anything, including an appetite for barley.
Listen to this one: “If one dreams of barley, it is a sign that one’s sins have been forgiven. Rabbi Zeyra longed so much to leave Babylon and relocate to the Land of Israel, but he refrained from doing so until he dreamed of barley” (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 57a). And finally: “When the jar is empty of barley, conflict comes knocking on your door” (Talmud Bavli, Baba Metzia 59a).
So, here is the deeper understanding about barley.
Barley represents First Love. When Jeremiah the Prophet interviewed God on an ancient rendition of “In-Treatment”, he asked what it was that touched God the most about God’s relationship with the Jews. The reply: “I remember the love of your youth, our first date, when we first fell in love, when your love was all-inclusive; when you threw all caution to the wind and followed me into the wilderness, into a place of no promise, no potential, no seed. [I remember when your love was unconditional, hinging on nothing but the purity of what you felt for me and I for you. When there was nothing between us but innocent trust]” (Jeremiah 2:2). Jeremiah jotted some notes on the clipboard and then inquired: “You mention all this ‘innocent love’ you felt from us and toward us. What do you mean by this?” God took in a deep breath and let out a Tsunami that wiped out four hotels in the Caribbean, and said: “The best way I can put it, is that it was like a First Love, a Genesis, absent anything that ever was. Sort of like the first growth of Spring, the first yield of the earth in Spring: so precious, so magical, so marvelous, that if anyone were to interfere with it — pow! To the moon!!” (Jeremiah 2:3).
These two passages in the sacred writ of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah says it all. The first yield of the earth is like the first love you’ve ever experienced. Not your first boyfriend or girlfriend, not your first romance, but your first love, meaning the first time you actually felt like, wow! — this is the real thing, and nothing can be more real.
Barley. Your first date. Your first love. The first move of earth in her romance with sky, responding to the rains of winter, reaching for the sky in total faith, in total innocence and trust, after which all else follows suit and emerges. Barley dared to venture forth out of the earth of winter. And seeing that barley took a chance of emerging into the unknown, grass followed, then wheat, then oats, then alfalfa, then little budding leaves peered hesitatingly from the tips of twigs, saw that it was okay to take a chance and respond to the call of sky, to the impregnation of rain, to the love of Creator for Creation. And every single day, every single phase of that season of new beginnings, of fresh unfolding of Spring, we celebrated at the Temple Court with sheaves of barley, offerings of First Love. And we sent her message outward to the world, inward to our selves, up toward the heavens, down toward the earth, shoo’ing away any harsh winds or rains that would come between us, that would try to stunt the magical emergence of fresh love, of renewed creation. And then we went home to our partners and didn’t see them the same old way we had gotten used to seeing them. We saw them anew and remembered the love of our youth, our first love that we felt with them. And we built on that, every day, counting each phase of its unfolding for seven weeks until we could feel ourselves standing at the foot of Mount Sinai marrying our earthly love to our spiritual love, our earthly partnership to our heavenly partnership. And yes, of course your sins are forgotten when you dream of barley, because you have become so completely transformed, you have emerged from the constraints of Egypt, the constraints of Winter, and there is nowhere else to go now but toward full blooming and total blossoming. And if you have been hesitating to leave Babylon for Israel, the barley in your dream shook you out of your stupor and moved you out of the hardened wood of twig into the soft, lush, color and fragrance of leaf.
Sift your barley thoroughly. Thirteen times at least. Thirteen, corresponding to the thirteen attributes of God’s compassion, the compassion that created this life to begin with — your life. As is written at the very beginning of the Book of Genesis (my translation): “In First Gift,emerging from within Primordial Thought, the nameless unknowable mystery manifested of itself Many Forces who then created the fire-waters (sky) and the coalescence (earth).”
After all, Creation was the First Gift. And still is. And to remind us of this, we celebrate with the first gift of Spring: Barley.
But remember: Never ever let your barley run out. Ever.
Spring is a season when we actually experience visually, audibly,aromatically, sensually, the gradual unfolding, the gradual stage-by-stage evolution of potential to fruition as dramatized by what we glibly refer to as “Nature.”
With the annual changes in the seasons of various plants of the earth and their time of fruition, there is born also changes in the soul of all creatures. Thus, living creatures born in one particular year are not akin to living creatures born in a different year. (12th-century Rabbi Avraham ibn Daud on Sefer Yetsirah, 3:4)
And so, during this period, from the onset of Spring to the onset of Summer, it is ancient Jewish tradition to ritually count each day, to ritually pay attention to and appreciate the magic of each phase of this wondrous unfolding that is happening outside our windows and inside our hearts. The lesson around the rite of “the Counting of the O’mer” is that the struggles we engage in the course of reaching for our dreams and hopes are worthy of acknowledgment no less than the actual, eventual realization of those dreams and hopes. For without the one there is not the other. Too often we focus exclusively on the objectives, reacting to the failure of its immediacy with frustration and impatience. One wonders if the apple seed, too, experiences this frustration and sense of dashed hopes as it grows first into a wooden stick that in no way resembles the apple it was promised it would become.
The course of our journey frequently does not so much as hint to the successful fruition of our intent. More often than not, the way to what we desire is riddled with every conceivable indication that what we want is not what we will get. The period between the advent of Spring and that of Summer — between the genesis of primal budding and the genesis of full blossoming, between Passover and Shavuot — is therefore a sacred period during which we can learn patience as well as faith in the process. And lest we forget this lesson in trust, the Hebrew ancestors would during this period of unfolding bring daily offerings of barley, a produce that was already actualized at the beginning of Spring, to remind the people that the end result of their endeavors is already available, concealed within the mystery of the process yet in motion.
We need to remember to stay attuned to the changes of our seasons, and to internalize their vital life lessons. Ritually or not, we need to count each day and make each day count; each moment. For every single phase of our budding in life is precious, is an achievement all in itself, whether we find ourselves in the phase of the seed, the root, the trunk, the branch, the twig, or the leaf. While the apple may be more celebrated than its earlier phase as leaf or twig or branch, the ritual of counting each day during the interval between spring and summer reminds us that every stage that led from seed to apple deserves acknowledgment as well.
This important lesson behind the Counting of the O’mer, is alluded to by the popular song in the Hagadah: Dayenu. In Dayenu, we sing about how every phase of the exodus — from bondage to freedom to survival in the desert to the revelation at Sinai to arrival in the ancestral homeland — each and every phase of it is sacred and a finale in its own right, not only because it built upon some earlier miracle or became the prelude to an even bigger miracle, but in its own right, independent of any other phase in the process.
How often do we whiz right by the stages and phases involved in achieving our goals, stepping on them and squashing them into insignificance, sometimes even disdain, sometimes frustration, our focus exclusively set upon the goal, the objective, the finish. And so our tradition teaches us to stop in the middle of the process, of the evolution, to recognize and acknowledge the miracle of the moment, because this very precious moment — even though it appears at this time in disarray, like rubble at a construction site — is nonetheless an essential piece to the final achievement that we so look forward to.
The fact is, that in our lifetime we are never guaranteed we will live long enough to finish what we want to accomplish. No guarantee. What we are guaranteed, however, is that we will live long enough to try, to begin the process. Like Rabbi Ben Hae-Hae taught in the first century B.C.E. — “In accordance with the intensity of the effort is the intensity of the reward” (Mishnah, Avot 5:22), meaning that holiness is not defined solely in the quality of final accomplishment; it is defined no less within the small, often frustrating phases that lead to the accomplishment. Judaism never emphasized achievement, only effort. God meets Moses not in Jerusalem at a stadium but in the wilderness of Mid’yan in a thorny bush. God gives us the Torah not in some lofty synagogue in the Promised Land, but in the Desert of Sinai, in no-man’s-land, on some obscure mountain, miles and miles from the Promised Land. God says to Moses: “The place where you are standing is holy” (Exodus 3:5)– right there, right now, not any special shrine or auspicious moment, but right now and right where you are in your process.
Spring time, more than any other season is ripe for this learning, because in Spring we watch with great anxiety the gradual budding of leaves, the gradual unfolding of flowers, the gradual emergence from the earth of all that had vanished from sight in Winter. After the final harvest of Sukot we were left with no promise, no indication, of anything ever growing back again to sustain us next Spring. And now, with Pesach, the beginning of Spring, we look forward to the blossoming time of Shavu’ot. How? By removing our focus on the end, on the blooming period, the achievement time, and focusing instead on the miracle and gift of each moment of every day of our personal unfolding as we approach Matan Torah time, and of the gradual yield of the earth as we approach Blossoming time. We thank God for every phase of every bud on every twig, for every phase of every tomato slowly making its way out of the earth toward one day nurturing us and meeting us in all its glory in a juicy pizza. We take this time to uplift ourselves from feeling frustrated in our own processes, frustrated that we haven’t achieved yet, reminding ourselves instead how it isn’t about achievement, it is about the effort, the process, the journey, the phases along the way.