D’Var Torah

Behar, 5784 (May 25, 2024)

Rabbi Micah Friedman

     This week we read about the Jubilee. Like Sefirat haOmer it involves counting in cycles of 7 up until the number 50. It is a counting towards the undoing of our expectations – our debts

  • The counting builds us towards the freedom of envisioning a future beyond our expectations – realizing that things can be different than they have been most of our lives. 
  • Slaves are freed, debts are forgive, everyone can return to the land of their ancestors
    • Except that we also read about degrees and distinctions in the application of this law
      • It plays out differently for non-Israelitets
  • This reflects our millenia long process of wrestling with a radical, prophetic vision of freedom and a practical experience of economy and competition
    • Our wrestling with: how can we live free lives in the land of Israel along with the other people who live in the land?

     While we, unfortunately, are still quite far from a good, consistent, answer to this question that honors and dignifies Israelite and Other alike, the mitzvah of the Jubilee teaches us a clear motivating value of the Torah’s vision for life in the land – and in the world:

  • Kavod HaBriot – the dignity and respect due to all human beings and all of creation. 

     Tomorrow, around the world, Jews will observe an odd Jewish holiday which is known for Bonfires, Haircuts, Music, and Weddings. It is called Lag Ba’Omer – literally – “the 33rd Sheaf”.

  • What is the deal with this holiday and this period in the calendar?

     I will make the case that the Omer, the parsha of the week, and the unique events of this years’ period of the Omer all contribute to a clear, loud call for us to engage in the counter-cultural Jewish practice of respectful discussion and disagreement.

During the Omer we engage in practices of mourning.

  • No weddings
    • This is mentioned first in the Talmud
      • Associated with no live music and shaving

This is pretty different from the Biblical Omer.  

  • Focused on celebrating the annual barley harvest
  • We brought one bundle each day to wave in the Temple until on Shavuot we brought two baked loaves
    • This Omer parallels the Omer of the Manna in the desert

So, why do we mourn?

  • One logical reason might be our alienation from the Earth and therefore our sources of food – our inability to actually bring the Omer in the way that is commanded by the Torah 

     The Talmud tells a very different story which sounds strikingly resonant this year – this season of the Omer. 

  • Thousands of students died from a plague because they failed to embody Kavod – Respect – Honor

     This story teaches us a lesson that is almost ironically relevant

  • Disaster can strike when people engage in animosity instead of true open intellectual engagement
    • Learning requires deep respect for the people with whom we share a context of learning 
    • When this deep respect is undermined, we are in trouble

     Fortunately, the much-publicized incidents of the breakdown of kavod on college campuses in recent weeks have not led to plague – chas v’shalom – 

  • Though there is still a deadly plague of war, hunger, hatred and cynical political action that demands we grieve and mourn

     However, tomorrow, we pause the grieving of the Omer to celebrate Lag Ba’Omer. Lag ba’Omer offers us light in the darkness of the Omer.

     The light of Lag Ba’Omer has come to be associated with a unique kind of light of Torah:

  • Light born from the transcendent depth of small circles of profound learning and teaching 
  • It celebrates the legacy of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – the leading figure in the narrative of the Zohar – an early rabbi who is found throughout the Talmud offering uniquely insightful perspectives
    • In the Zohar, he serves as the charismatic leader of a circle of fellow teachers and students – often learning profound wisdom from unexpected characters. Young children, donkey drivers, and inn-keepers each reveal unique aspects of the inner workings of the universe.

     Through the adventures of this group of seekers of the light of Torah, the world was gifted the great tradition of the Kaballah which made an immense impact on the evolution of Jewish tradition. 

This is Like the Margaret Mead quote

  • Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

     As we gather here each week – counting on each other – no matter how big or small our numbers, we have the ability to bring great light into the world – to bring the healing energy of people who are truly willing to engage respectfully with each other – to honor each other as we learn from each other. 

     To conclude, I would like to share a quote from Pirkei Avot that this discussion evokes. There is a longstanding custom of learning Pirkei Avot during the Omer

  • Especially on Shabbat

     There are 6 Shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot and 6 chapters of Pirkei Avot

  • Pirkei Avot is about the way that Jewish tradition teaches us to live our lives to truly become people of Torah
    • People of wisdom 
    • People of compassion

     Often, as is in the case of the 1st teaching in the 4th chapter, the teachings of Pirkei Avot are counter-intuitive and I would say counter-cultural

  • They challenge common assumptions about how the world works and how it should work 

     In this teaching, Ben Zoma asks and answers 4 rhetorical questions:

  • Who is wise?
  • Who is strong?
  • Who is rich?
  • Who is respected? (or honored)?

     In every case, he challenges our assumption and, in doing so, invites us as Jews to embody alternative approaches to our pursuit of wisdom, strength, wealth, and respect. 

     These alternative approaches can be antidotes to the ills of our current culture and society. 

Who is wise?

  • One who learns from everyone

Who is strong?

  • One who controls their urges and temptations

Who is rich?

  • One who is happy with their portion? 

Who is respected?

  • One who respects others 

     May our community be a beacon of Kavod – of respect – as we treat everyone with dignity and continue to learn from everyone who participates in our communal life and may this stance – with G-d’s help – spread throughout the Earth. 

Shabbat Shalom