Paving and Paradise
By Joel M. Hoffman
Pave over a field and an amazing thing happens each spring: grass grows through the blacktop. Somehow, even the industrial strength of the pavement, powerful enough to support the tonnage of trucks, can’t stop a single, fragile, nascent blade of grass yearning for light.
At this time of year, we are like the grass.
Our springtime holiday of freedom ended a short while ago. Our next major celebration comes exactly fifty days after Passover, on May 29, this year. It’s Shavu’ot, the day that commemorates when we stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah. The 49-day period in between is called the Omer, and it’s a time of spiritual limbo. We have our freedom, but we don’t yet have guidance from Torah. So we can do what we want, but we don’t know what we should do. The Omer is our yearly moral navigation check-up, a time to ask: “Am I going in the right direction?”
The seven week period of the Omer (“seven weeks of seven days,” it’s called in the Torah) has become so important that we traditionally count each day. When we do, we note the total number of days, and also how many weeks they comprise. Mother’s Day, for example, falls this year on the 31st day of the Omer, which is four weeks and three days into the Omer. That’s how it’s done.
It’s a period of high emotion. For some people, most of the Omer is a season of mourning, during which weddings are forbidden and even pleasurable music is not allowed. But the 33rd day of the Omer — lag ba’omer, in Hebrew — is a day of rejoicing. So is Jerusalem Day, on the 43 day of the Omer. (If you want a traditional springtime wedding, it has to be on the 33rd day of the Omer, making that day one of the hardest times to find a wedding hall in Israel.)
We juxtapose confirmation with Shavu’ot, using our celebration of Torah to publicly acknowledge the students who have chosen to continue their Jewish education. Bar/bat mitzvah may have been when they became Jewish adults, allowed to make their own ritual decisions, but without Torah, how will they decide what to do? That’s one reason we hope they continue to study.
Shavu’ot usually comes around the last day of Religious School, as if to underscore the connection between going to Religious School and working to accept Torah. On Shavu’ot, we celebrate another successful year of school.
And Shavu’ot, like Memorial Day, marks the beginning of summer.
In Aramaic — the language of the Talmud and of prayers such as the Kadish — the word for Torah is oraita, literally, “the light.” In this context, we are all like the grass that breaks through the blacktop. The grass is searching for the sun. We are searching for our light, the light that is Torah. And our job during the Omer is to find it. Like for the grass, sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles block our path. Instead of blacktop, we have to overcome petty rivalry, jealousy, hatred, and ego, just to name a few. These are often harder than pavement.
There’s another way our journey is more difficult than that of the grass. Gravity causes chemicals called auxins to pool in the lower part of the grass shoot, which then has no choice but to grow upward. It will eventually find light. We have more freedom. We can go anywhere we want, do anything we please. We can grow toward Torah, or shift away from it. The Omer is our time to ask if we are going in the right direction: Are we becoming better people? Are we working toward the right goals? Are we proud of where we’re going and what we’re working to do?
We have one final thing in common with the grass. We can’t see the light until we overcome the obstacles blocking our path. The Omer can be dark and frustrating, but if we spend our time wisely, it will be worth it.