Perhaps it is a cliché, but Pesach is our festival of freedom. Freedom from slavery, freedom to practice the rites and rituals of the tribe of Israel, freedom to walk towards our own future, held in our own hands.
But freedom, unchecked, can become problematic. When every individual has unfettered freedoms that they use without consideration for anyone else at all, chaos, narcissism and in-fighting can be the result.
This is why, in part, Pesach has become tethered to Shavuot, which comes seven weeks later, with the ritual of the counting of the Omer.
Counting the Omer (first found in Leviticus, 23:15) was originally connected to the barley harvest; it ritually linked the community in Temple times to the farming season that led to Shavuot.
This was when first fruits would have been offered and people would have gathered on mass at the Temple. But with the Temple gone, things naturally began to take on new meanings beyond what was given in Torah.
As Shavuot could no longer be a pilgrim festival where the bounty of the land was offered at the Temple, the rabbinic tradition connected it to the giving of Torah – a logical journey meaning we walk from the Exodus, and take seven weeks to arrive
at Mount Sinai for the receiving of revelation.
But we were freed from Egypt so we might be free to become responsible for our lives and for the gift of living and interpreting Torah in every generation. So Shavuot comes to represent our responsibilities. And the Omer ties Pesach firmly to Shavuot. Freedom is not something that comes unfettered; it is tethered to our responsibilities. We cannot just be about ourselves, we have to take responsibility for one another and for the world around us.
We count the days from Pesach to Shavuot to ritually remind us that we travel with our freedom, but it goes hand-in-hand with responsibility. We are stronger, and society is stronger, when we remember that freedom has to walk alongside responsibility.
As we celebrate the festival of freedom, and many will make current enslavements and freedom struggles part of their sedarim, we begin a period of reflection in the Omer.
If we can walk through the Omer remembering both our freedom and our responsibility, we might make the seder messages even more real.
- Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is community educator at the Movement for Reform Judaism