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Grain, Growth and Goodness

By Rabbi Yedidiah Shapira

Two types of grain, two types of challenges. The news tells us what is happening, the Torah tells us how to relate to all that transpires ......

Grain, Growth and Goodness

In this weeks Torah portion, Parshat Emor, we read the Torah's instruction that on the second day of Passover we should bring a measure -an "Omer" -of the first cutting of our barley harvest to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to G-d, and not to partake of that year's barley crop -or any other newly harvested grain, until that offering is made. We are then to count 49 days from that offering, and on the 50th day, which is Shavuot, we are commanded to bring the first of our wheat harvest as an offering to G-d, and not partake of that year's wheat until this is done.

Hence, the 49-day count leading from Passover to Shavuot is called "The Counting of the Omer"--a reference to the omer (a biblical measure) of barley that was brought on the first day of the count--and Shavuot is called Yom Habikkurim, "The Day of the First-Fruits Offering."

As always in the Torah, there are eternal personal and societal insights to be gleaned from particular public ritual.

In Biblical tradition, barley is primarily animal food. Wheat is the key and ideal human food.

The understanding that we gain from these offerings is:

The Hebrew word for offering, "Korban" means "to draw near". This 49 day period of the Sefirat Ha'omer, the arc between these two offerings of wheat and barley, is an opportune time for spiritual and ethical self development. It represents the opportunity to draw close to G-dliness, the entire universe of human impulse, from the most basic drives for self preservation to them most subtle intellectual and artistic insight.

In each one of us there is a human "G-dly soul" and an "animal soul." The Animal Soul of the human being is uniquely human and contains a broad range of emotional and intellectual characteristics. Regarding the emotional aspects of the Animal Soul, most of us would agree that a "barley offering" is in order. Obviously, the appetites for physical pleasure and expression of ego must be controlled and tamed by connecting them to the Divine. We must therefore offer up my physical drives and desires to control by G-d through the mediation of our G-dly soul lest they get the better of us. We see every day around us the harm caused to individuals and those around them, as well as to whole societies, by the untrammeled expression of the Animal Soul

However when it comes to the intellectual and creative side of the Animal Soul, we are inclined to believe that all intellectual and artistic endeavor is inherently positive, inasmuch as it is uniquely human and intrinsically refined. There are those who would argue that untrammeled intellectual and artistic expression is itself a fundamental good.

Torah rejects these premises and tells us "Stop"! Before we can use "wheat" - the uniquely human aspects of our natural soul, we must also, first, bring an offering of our "wheat"--our human endeavor--to G-d. We can engage in thorough introspection and mediation, seeking the input of our G-dly soul into each intellectual and aesthetic journey we embark upon. If we do not bind our intellect and creativity to the unchanging and transcendent G-dly values articulated by Torah and fed into our consciousness by the G-dly soul then - no matter how profound our musings or how refined our aesthetic, we risk creating and inspiring falsehood, evil and destruction. Not all art inspires positive behavior or attitudes; not every music uplifts the soul; nor is every philosophy helpful or even benign.

Indeed, there is nothing more destructive than negative concepts and beliefs and societal paradigms. All the worst evils of a terribly violent and inhumane 20th century stemmed not from misused "Barley" - greed and base animal passions, but from misused "Wheat" - malignant ideologies.

Archimedes of Syracuse famously said "Give me a place to stand upon, and with a lever I will move the whole world." That place exists; it is the human mind, the only question is - "to whence be the movement?" The ideas in those minds can lift the world up to the heights of virtue and peace or cast it down to the depths of depravity and destruction. Only by shining the light of G-dliness into our souls can we distinguish between the ideas and creations that refine humanity and those that pollute it.

The process of counting and living the Omer -arc gives us the ability and clarity to begin each step of our intellectual, creative, societal or political endeavor by asking: "Does this essay or poem or work of art or piece of music or speech or campaign to mold public opinion, move us closer to unity by expressing a G-dly vision of a harmonious, uplifted, and refined world?

If we do, it will.

Shabbat Shalom

(Rabbi) Yedidiah Shapira

(Find other articles by Rabbi Yedidiah Shapira)

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