Jewish holidays are rooted in historical events and in the life cycles of plants indigenous to the land of Israel.
We are now in the time of the Omer. On the day after the full moon of Pesach, our ancestors harvested an omer (sheaf) from the first barley harvest and brought it as an offering to the Kohanim (priests) in the Temple. The Kohanim would separate out the fresh barley kernels, roast them and grind them into flour. Then they mixed some in olive oil and frankincense, waved the bowl in all seven directions, and dropped a handful on the altar fire. They made the rest into cakes and ate them to share a meal with God.
We count each day for seven weeks from the beginning of the barley harvest to the beginning of the wheat harvest on Shavuot. We remember the agricultural rituals because they connect us to the land of Israel and because we hope to someday restore these practices.
In addition to the harvests, each Jewish holiday commemorates a specific event that occurred in our history. Although it only happened once, on a mystical level these events opened up wellsprings of spiritual power that are available to us every year. We step inside the story, as if it is happening to us in real time, to reenact its power to heal and transform us.
The Torah instructs us to count each night during these seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot – from Egypt to Mount Sinai. As we climb up out of the ashes of slavery into our higher selves, we are repairing our broken vessels in order to receive the light of Torah at Mount Sinai. Weighed down by the trauma of 400 years of slavery, we are still in a very low place.
The Nile River valley is also geographically much lower than the Sinai wilderness and the land of Israel. So this is the time of our physical and spiritual ascent from Egypt.
As we leave the familiar world of Egypt behind us and walk into the unknown wilderness, we are scared but we are not alone. Look ahead and you can see that the Great Spirit is guiding us with the elements of fire, water and air.
There is a pillar of cloud by day and an amud eish, a pillar of fire, by night guiding us through the wilderness. When it is time to rest, the cloud or the fire settles around the entire camp to protect us; when it is time to get up and go, the fire or cloud collects itself into a pillar that leads us like a shepherd’s staff through the wilderness.
In Egypt, our people were fruitful and multiplied from a small family into a great nation. We grew within the womb of the fertile Nile River valley, and were plucked out by the hand of God.
Birth is always associated with water: The fetus is surrounded by amniotic fluids, the mother’s water breaks as a sign of imminent birth. Like a woman in labor, the children of Israel were terrified when they reached the edge of the sea. Pharaoh’s army was right behind them, and they had nowhere to go. They moaned and cried out to their creator and said, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the wilderness?”
One brave soul from the Tribe of Judah pressed forward into the water until it was up to his nose. He was like a baby pressing against the amniotic sac – and this is when the water broke. Moses raised his staff and stretched it out over the sea, causing it to split into two walls of water, with dry land in the middle.
The children of Israel walked down into the middle of the sea to escape Pharaoh’s army.
Despite this great miracle, they were still terrified. “How are we not dead right now? Will these walls of water stay long enough for us to get out?”
We too are walking through the unknown wilderness right now. Will we and our loved ones survive this pandemic? Will we lose our jobs? How long will this lockdown last? Where are we going? It’s very scary when even our leaders don’t seem to know what will happen next. We look to that pillar of fire that is leading us through the dark night, it is the light of our faith, the inner light of our souls that guides us through this foreign wilderness.
All of humanity is in a birthing moment right now, which is why it is so painful and scary. We know something new is being born, but we cannot see its face yet. Our sages teach that this is a yeridah l’tzorech aliyah, “descent for the purpose of ascent.” We experience distance from God in order to draw close. We fall in order to rise even higher than before.
We are now amid a global descent that is causing us to draw closer to the light. During this pandemic, we are birthing something entirely new from within ourselves individually and for society as a whole. We know this because it is proven by history.
After World War I, there was a surging economy and a creative renaissance, which we now call the Roaring Twenties. After World War II, there was the baby boom, the rise of the middle class, so many new social services – and out of the darkness of the Holocaust came the state of Israel.
It is inevitable that at the end of this narrow passage, we will birth something completely new and emerge much higher and stronger than we were before. These are the birth pangs of the Moshiach (messiah) being born. It is painful and scary, but we know that it is ultimately for the greater good.
As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov famously taught, the entire world is a very narrow bridge swinging in the wind, and the most important thing is to not make ourselves more afraid by constantly looking down.
When we feel lost in this wilderness, we must look ahead to the pillar of cloud and fire that is guiding us, even if we don’t know where we are going or when we will arrive.
AARON PHILMUS is the rabbi at Temple Torat Yisrael, in East Greenwich.