Monthly Archives: April 2023

Counting On It

One of the more confusing elements of the Jewish tradition is something called the counting of the omer. In the Book of Leviticus (23:10-11), it is commanded that the Israelites bring a sheaf or omer of the first harvest of their barley to the priest on the second day of Passover. The priest would then wave the barley offering before God – whatever that looked like – to symbolize the start of the harvest season.

This barley offering was part of the larger agricultural cycle in ancient Israel based on the lunar calendar. The barley harvest was the first of the crops in the year, marking the beginning of the agricultural cycle. The offering of the first fruits fifty days later was a way of acknowledging God’s role in the harvest and thanking God for the abundance of the land. The practice of bringing an omer of barley and then the first fruits as offerings continued until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Technically, according to the Torah, we count the days between the first grain offering of the year and the new meal offering given at the peak of the harvest season, 50 days later. The whole thing is simply a way to count down the harvest season. But over the years, as Shavuot morphed from a harvest festival to the holiday celebrating the day the Jews received the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jewish philosophers and commentators seized this calendrical link between Passover and Shavuot to push for a more robust religious underpinning.

For we who are not traditionally observant, this counting of the omer is an atavistic relic, a practice we are only barely aware of and in which we are utterly disinterested. It happens. Ritual can only inspire us when it connects us to a more profound truth about our life and how our Judaism defines it.

Lighting Hanukkah candles is a ritual that reminds us of the struggle between light and dark. Saying the kaddish opens our sense of loss and appreciation for those who have died. Coming to temple on the High Holy Days engages us in the joy of community and the sea of time that forever flows forward. Yom Kippur fasting reminds us of our mortality and our capacity to reflect on the deeper parts of our lives.

I could go on and on, bringing up rituals that continue to resonate within us. The fact is that there are also many, like counting the omer, which no longer has credible valence. As post-modern Reform Jews, we are not commanded to do anything because God says so. We do it because we are engaged in making meaning. We define our existence through the lens of Judaism. We are the inheritors of an ancient tradition that we renew as we evolve. Keeping kosher does not convey meaning for most of us, but supporting sustainable agriculture as a Jewish value does make a real impact.

Living as a Jew in a universe where God does not command us to follow 613 mitzvot requires us to decide the boundaries and the obligations of our faith and practice. It’s about constructing a spiritual life on a scaffolding we build together. This is the gift we hand down from one generation to the next: the boldness to think about our Jewishness in real-time, to do something not because someone said so but because it is meaningful and engaging, and life-affirming.

Counting the omer meant something to our ancestors and continues to mean something to traditional Jews today. But it does not speak to me today – at all. That isn’t sad. It’s not a sign of the slow erosion of Judaism. It speaks to how we evolve, define, and redefine the values and practices that most enhance our lives. Now that’s something to celebrate. That’s something to count on.

Pondering Pesach

Passover is a time traveler’s holiday. We skip over the surface of memory, constantly bouncing into the future, then back to the past, then into the present, over and over again. Our Passover journey through the spacetime continuum is a group venture, fellow explorers floating around a table.

And yet, the seder is also a profoundly personal pilgrimage. Each one of us has intimate recollections that push us back and forth through time. The same rituals that bind us together engage each one of us at the very core of our souls. That engagement, or lack thereof, determines the meaning of this experience.

This realization may be at the core of the harsh response to the wicked child, as described in the Haggadah. This child expresses a disconnect from the experience. They’re not interested in exploring it from their soul. They say, “What does this holiday, this journey through time and space, mean to you?” rather than acknowledging that it belongs to them, too. If you don’t immerse yourself in the happening and won’t own it, it’s all for naught. It’s not that the wicked child would be left behind in exile. Instead, it’s the wicked child’s decision. It’s not abandonment. To travel this path requires actual agency.

Over the course of two seders, I was with my parents and siblings on Highview Terrace in Middletown. I was there for the “let’s eat right after the Four Questions” moments. I was in Jerusalem in 1973 at a Yemenite seder, seeing rice on the table and freaking out. I journeyed to Pittsburgh, where I had at least one seder in my grandmother’s apartment – stifling hot, crowded, and noisy. I was in my own home, looking around the table, missing those who used to join us and are no longer present in body but certainly in spirit. I was astral projecting to see my grandchildren in their teens and twenties. I even saw the table without me. It wasn’t morbid – it’s just a part of Passover.

The Passover story is about transformation and change, about an ongoing struggle to wend our way around and through obstacles and impediments to find our true self and calling. It’s about how we, as Jews, have sought to make meaning through ritual and communal celebration. Most of all, Passover is an ongoing gift of memory. It is a reminder that time is the ocean in which we swim, following the waves as they ebb and flow, carrying us out to see and back to the shore over and over again.


Getting ready for Passover is not only an act; it’s a series of several acts. There are, of course, several lists online, because the Internet loves lists. They all pretty much boil down to the following:

Cleaning: In traditional homes, this means an aggressive, violent war fought against chametz using steel wool, blowtorches, boiling water, chemical solvents, and vacuum cleaners. It also requires severely beating rugs and pillows and cushions, etc. This is all done to make certain that there are leavened products or crumbs stuck in the couch, on the counters, in the bedrooms, and so forth. No corner of the house is exempt.

Shopping: It’s all about the “Kosher for Passover” labels. You cannot use open products in a kosher for Passover home. Everything from sponges to cleanser to detergent to dish soap to bar soap to spices… In other words, anything potentially “contaminated” by chametz cannot be used during the holiday. Milk and eggs should be bought before the holiday and don’t need certification. Yogurt, cream cheese, etc do require certification. It’s a Herculean task, and the expense is no light load!

Book buying: The right Haggadah is important. If you don’t like it, you feel like your seder is being held hostage by a book. Well, don’t let your celebration get bogged down by readings and songs you don’t know or don’t like. There are so many options now, at least 60 on Amazon! Call me if you need a hand. I can’t give a blanket opinion without knowing who’s coming to dinner…

Cooking: Cooking a beautiful Passover meal is a big part of the holiday. Don’t forget, we are to sit – no, loll around the table as if we were Roman aristocracy. That’s why we recline when we drink the wine – we are lords and ladies who are not in a hurry to get back to work. We are free, and no one is telling us what to do.

As the head chef for Passover, I like to serve traditional dishes; for us that includes matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, chopped liver, brisket, potatoes, and then desserts. I also add a few new things every year. I find that is a great source of ideas, as is

Prepping yourself. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the meal and the seating and the family issues that sometimes arise. And while that’s all real, so too is the underlying reason for us all to gather. We are retelling an ancient story of journeying from one place to another, from one state of being to another. We move from the constricting stranglehold of enslavement and oppression to the vast openness of freedom. We were once slaves – but no longer. However, there are still people in our world who cannot make the same claim, and their pain must lessen our loud shouts of joy. Solomon Burke sings, “None of us are free/When one of is chained/Then none of us are free.”

He’s right, of course. And how can we avoid thinking of the refugees in the world now, people struggling to find a safe place for themselves and their children and their parents? The HIAS Passover supplement includes these words: “Throughout our history, violence and persecution have driven the Jewish people to wander in search of a safe place to call home. We are a refugee people. At the Passover Seder, we gather to retell the story of our original wandering and the freedom we found. But we do not just retell the story. We are commanded to imagine ourselves as though we, personally, went forth from Egypt – to imagine the experience of being victimized because of who we are, of being enslaved, and of being freed. As we step into this historical experience, we cannot help but draw to mind the 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world today fleeing violence and persecution, searching for protection. Like our ancestors, today’s refugees experience displacement, uncertainty, lack of resources, and the complete disruption of their lives.”

How can we not include some of this in our seder? Feast for our freedom! Celebrate our liberation! And then commit to doing something to make a difference for those who know what we knew about loss and fear and rejection. Where some say no, we must say yes. Where some close the door, we must open it. We can’t change the world or make significant policy decisions. But we can – we must – do the work of social justice. Because if we don’t, who will? Because if we don’t, we’re headed right to Egypt again.

Feast for our freedom! Celebrate our liberation! And then commit to doing something to make a difference for those who know what we knew about loss and fear and rejection. Where some say no, we must say yes. Where some close the door, we must open it. We can’t change the world or make significant policy decisions. But we can – we must – do the work of social justice. We must support the struggle for democracy: in Israel, in Ukraine, in America. Because if we don’t, who will? Because if we don’t, we’re headed right to Egypt again.

Shabbat Shalom