Last fall, my husband and I ordered a new sukkah decoration straight from Israel. The package arrived with a free magnet, imprinted with the image of a woman holding an umbrella, walking in the rain. The magnet had one word on it. Sasson (“joy”). It took me a moment, and then I realized my cultural gap. Living in New Jersey, joy is not the word I associate with rain. However, in Israel and other arid climates, rain is pure joy, because it is desperately needed.
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, includes a section on the holidays, a calendar chiefly driven by the agrarian cycle. Theses verses are relevant to modern Jews because, thousands of years later, we still celebrate the holidays, albeit with layers of development around our rituals, but at the core, these holidays are still the same. But to be honest, the descriptions of the biblical holiday sacrifices, meal and fruit offerings, and animal sacrifices, do not resonate when compared to my modern observance of Judaism.
For example, the parashah describes the counting of the Omer, the annual schlepping of grain offerings for seven weeks. This daily offering of grain bridged the barley harvest of Passover to the wheat harvest of Shavuot. But how do I count the Omer today? Do I schlep a bundle of barely to the Temple, to be offered, in recognition of God as source of all? Not at all! Today, an app on my phone sends me a reminder every night at sundown, and I count the Omer, with words. Done.
Given the vast differences between now and biblical times, it is easy to forget how scary the harvest cycle would have been for our ancestors. In the winter they waited nervously to see if there would be enough rain to sustain the growth of their crops to feed their family and their animals. Then after the rains of winter, once the crops were planted, it was a waiting game. Would they be able to harvest the crops before something bad happened? The possibilities for failure were endless: too much heat, not enough water, locusts, or some other plague. It was a precarious time.
As the modern plague of COVID-19 unfolds, we are foremost concerned about life and health. However, we also hold our breaths as we watch the world’s economy spin out of control. Therefore, this year, while we count the Omer, we also count our balances in checking accounts and retirement funds. We wait to see if jobs will continue or salaries will be cut. And we deeply understand the fears of our ancestors, who prayed to be sustained by their storerooms. The biblical fears are near to us as ever. Our holidays, with their deep agrarian roots, are ultimately about the basic human need, shared by every generation, to have enough to sustain us, even when times are tough.
This desire for economic stability and sustenance is voiced in the following passage, added in some communities historically, at the conclusion of the daily morning service.
First, the community would read the passage from Exodus 16 about the manna and then add something like this example:
יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְּפָנֶיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, שֶׁתַּזְמִין פַּרְנָסָה לְכָל עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וּפַרְנָסָתִי וּפַרְנָסַת אַנְשֵׁי בֵיתִי בִּכְלָלָם, בְּנַחַת וְלֹא בְּצַעַר, בְּכָבוֹד וְלֹא בְּבִזּוּי, בְּהֶתֵּר וְלֹא בְּאִסּוּר, כְּדֵי שֶׁנּוּכַל לַעֲבוֹד עֲבוֹדָתֶךָ וְלִלְמוֹד תּוֹרָתֶךָ כְּמוֹ שֶׁזַּנְתָּ לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ מָן בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ צִיָּה וַעֲרָבָה:
May it be Your will, Adonai our God and God of our ancestors, to provide sustenance for all Your people, the House of Israel, and sustenance for me and all the members of my household, with pleasantness and not with suffering, with honor and not with degradation, through permissible activities and not forbidden activities, so that we will be able to serve You and to learn Your Torah, just as you sustained our ancestors in the wilderness with Manna in a dry and desert land.
Our Torah portion and this liturgical addition are examples of the human desire for economic stability. Our tradition does not suggest we merely pray for sustenance, but rather balance our longing for stability with financial literacy, community resources, educational opportunities, and generosity to others through tzedakah.
Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Elders, 3:17 teaches these famous words from Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya:
אִם אֵין קֶמַח, אֵין תּוֹרָה. אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין קֶמַח.
If there is no flour [meaning ability to earn money], there is no Torah. If there is no Torah, there is no flour [ability to earn money]. This is frequently interpreted as: the religious, spiritual, and ethical teachings of Torah must co-dwell with the mundane matters of earning money and sustaining ourselves. One realm should not exist without the other.
The line in Pirkei Avot just before the flour/Torah teaching adds:
אִם אֵין בִּינָה, אֵין דַּעַת. אִם אֵין דַּעַת, אֵין בִּינָה.
If there is no knowledge, there is no understanding; if there is no understanding, there is no knowledge.
Perhaps, at this time of economic instability, we can read these lines together to understand that economic stability must be built on the best of Jewish values and the best of secular financial knowledge.
May you and your loved ones know health and financial security, Torah and generosity, and therefore know sasson, (“joy”).
 Robert Scheinberg, “Money and Transaction in Jewish Liturgy and Rituals” in Mary Zamore, ed., The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic (New York: CCAR Press, 2019), 335.
Rabbi Mary L. Zamore is the editor of and a contributing author to two acclaimed CCAR Press Challenge and Change anthologies, The Sacred Exchange: Creating A Jewish Money Ethic (2019) and The Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic (2011). The Sacred Table was designated a finalist by the National Jewish Book Awards. She is also the Executive Director of Women’s Rabbinic Network.