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Economy omer Shavuot Social Justice spirituality

Economic Stability: An Ageless Quest

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.[1]

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”).

[1] 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.

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Shavuot Torah

Standing At Sinai

If ever you meet a fellow Jew and you can’t place where you’ve met before, after a game of “Jewish Geography,” you might just concede and say, “well, at least I know we were together at Sinai.”  For it is said, that the souls of ALL Jews (even those who choose Judaism later in life) were together at Mount Sinai to receive and witness the revelation of Torah.

As we rejoice in the holiday of Shavuot- the holiday that commemorates the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we actually have an opportunity to remind ourselves that the Torah and the wisdom of Judaism continues to be revealed to us each and every day.

Thanks to my friend and mentor, Rabbi Jeff Sirkman I have learned to call any moment of revelation a “Sinai Moment,” in honor of the fact that we all have a chance to “stand at Sinai,” we all can have a sense of revelation that in some way deepens our connection to Torah, our faith and Judaism in general.

Without going into all the “mushy details,” for me, a major “Sinai Moment” in my life came on my second date with my husband. As he stood outside the Karaoke restaurant where we were to meet, I looked up and just felt a sense of revelation- I knew something was different, I knew I was experiencing something incredibly special in my life.  I didn’t know what exactly, but I knew something was being revealed to me.  Some of you may even be able to pinpoint one or hopefully multiple “Sinai Moments” in your own life.  Was it the birth of a child? Or when, thank God, you overcame something terrible in your life? Or was it something else?

Right now and at all times we should be open to witnessing a “Sinai Moment.” At this very moment, each of us can live out the words expressed in Deuteronomy 29:14, and be like our elders who stood at Sinai and those who weren’t there, but still accept Torah. We can make the decision to accept Torah, in that we must take on the challenge to live out what it means to be Jewish and to be part of a community, in whatever way it is revealed to you.

Like all of the souls at Sinai, we need to actively accept the yoke of being a Jew and being part of a community. Together it is up to us to do our part to remember the past, celebrate the present, and secure the future of Judaism by being open to “Sinai Moments” and all moments of Revelation.

Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov serves Temple Anshe Hesed in Erie, PA.  She also blogs about the recent loss of her father at www.kaddishformydad.com

Categories
Shavuot Torah

Shavuot and Closure—An Acknowledgement of the Past Before Offering First Fruits and Welcoming Revelation

This year Shavuot coincides with the end of the school year, the end of the fiscal year, and, for our family, the end of living in the home that we have occupied for the past seven years.  Past are the trials and triumphs of acquiring new knowledge and navigating challenging social situations in the previous school year; present are the last appeals for gifts before July 1; and the future is unknown for how it will feel to walk away from the home that has witnessed so many firsts in our family: the first time our sons met each other after our second son was born, the first Havdalah when the sons commenced the ritual of adding tasting to the smelling of the spices, the first family movie night when everyone actually agreed on the same movie.  Even in the excitement of the firsts of the coming year, letting go of the place that held the firsts of yesteryear is difficult.

In some ways, the biblical custom of offering the first fruits on Shavuot seems to acknowledge this.   The ritual as described in Deuteronomy 26 includes a storytelling mechanism that allows the person offering the fruits to share the challenges and feats of the past.  And while in this case it is the sharing of a collective past of the Israelites—starting with their ancestor who was a wandering Aramean—by the time that the person gets to the end of the ritual, instead of speaking in the collective voice, the offerer speaks individually:  “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, Adonai, have given to me.”

Assessing our own individual past, acknowledging it and coming to terms with it, seems a healthy way to move forward as we ready ourselves to accept the gifts of our future.  Judaism gives our communities collective ways to reflect on personal life experiences and our responses to them.  This year, during the time of Counting the Omer—amidst the packing, the schlepping, and the stress—I have taken time out to reflect not only on the past year, but the past seven.  This process helps my find a bit of closure as I look to the future that I hope will be filled with new adventures, sacred moments, and revelation.

Our cherished and wise colleague, Rabbi Cindy Enger, gave me a great tool by which to do this in her brilliant teaching when I heard her speak some weeks ago.  She shared with her community a teaching by Rabbi Nancy Flam who drew from the pioneering work of a Jewish educator named Rachel Kessler (z”l).

Nancy suggested four areas to reflect on when coming to closure—in preparation for a new beginning.

  1. First articulate the gain: What are the gifts that you’ve received by being part of this past experience?
  1. Second, acknowledge the loss: Having experienced the feeling of strength and gratitude that comes with realizing the gifts of having participated in this experience, it is important to acknowledge the sadness that may come with closure.
  1. Next, establish personal power: Where else in my life do I have or can I create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this past experience?
  1. Finally, establish realistic continuity: While not denying that we are coming to a true ending, is it possible that there will be places of continuity with people and practices established as part of this experience?

This season of anticipation—of receiving our ultimate guide for taking new steps in our lives—seems especially apt for my family and me.  Yet, for so many of us, as we enter the summer, we each have the opportunity to reflect on the past year, appreciate special experiences within it, and move forward with both excitement and gratitude.  So if you, like me, will be awake through the wee hours of Saturday night and Sunday morning at a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, you just may have the opportunity to reflect on an experience from the past that would help you embrace the promise of an enlightened tomorrow by following these prompts:

  • What I’ve received from this experience that I will always take with me is…
  • What I will miss about this experience is…
  • Other places where I have or can create what has been meaningful and nourishing to me from this experience include…
  • I hope to establish realistic points of continuity by…

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover serves Temple Sholom of Chicago.