I have been working on my garden this week. I have planted tomoatoes and peppers. I laid down my drip irrigation system. I went to the hardware store and bought enriched garden soil. While it may seem like a lot of work, compared to ancient times it was really quite easy.
What is the nature of humanity’s relationship to the earth?
While very much in touch with the land, and full of practical knowledge—probably much more so than most of us today—ancient humans did not have a scientific understanding of the world around them. Whether it rained or not, whether the wind blew or was still, was due to active oversight by God. And so, I imagine that there was a certain amount of awe and humility that accompanied gardening in ancient times.
We see evidence of this attitude, this awareness of our frailty vis a vis the natural world, throughout the Torah. Parashat Emor includes one of the Torah’s sacred calendars. Appearing next to instructions for priests about maintaining their pure status, it focuses understandably on the sacrifices that the priests must offer in the Temple.
One of those offerings pertains to the season in which we find ourselves right now. God instructs Moses to inform the Israelites:
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.Levitucs 23:10
Notice that this is the very first offering that the Israelites in the wilderness will bring after they enter the Promised Land. They are supposed to bring this sheaf offering, the omer, on the second day of Passover. The priest will take this offering and elevate it. The Torah continues:
Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears; it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.Leviticus 23:14
Until this omer is brought, the Israelites are not permitted to consume any of the grain from the new crop.
What is an omer? A sheaf. What’s a sheaf? You’ve surely seen pictures. Think of long stalks of grain, bundled together. A sheaf is the quantity of stalks that a person could carry under one arm. One sheaf’s-worth of stalks contained about 4 dry pints of grain.
So what is the Torah asking the Israelite farmer to do?
Let’s talk about pre-modern agriculture. It was extremely time consuming and labor intensive. It is not for nothing that Adam’s curse upon eating of the fruit includes the line, “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat.”
The first step is preparation of the field by ploughing; then sowing it with seed; then hoeing; then removingl thorns and weeds; then harvesting the stalks of grain, then bundling them into sheaves. After that comes the most labor intensive step of the entire process: threshing. This is when the farmer separates the grain kernels from the straw by beating the stalks of wheat. To thresh one bushel of wheat—about 8 dry gallons—by hand, would typically take about an hour. Finally comes winnowing, which is when the grain kernels are separated by tossing it up into the air and letting the wind carry off the chaff. At this point, the farmer has grain that can be stored in silos. Until the last few centuries, this has been the normal procedure for producing grain. It was incredibly hard work and not particularly efficient.
The Omer offering adds some additional steps for the ancient Israelite. Removing an omer’s worth of grain from the silo, the farmer would bring the offering in a basket to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Rabbis of the Mishnah describe what happened next. The farmer would
place [the grain] into a hollow, perforated [metal] vessel and then roast it over the fire. They would then spread the roasted kernels out on the ground of the Temple courtyard to be cooled by the wind. Next it would be ground in a mill. Finally it would be sifted 13 times. This would result in a tenth of an ephah’s worth of the finest quality flour (about one quart).Menachot 10:4
What an enormous amount of work for such a small offering. What is its purpose? A midrash suggests an answer.
Rabbi Levi said: Even assuming that you have ploughed, sown, hoed, removed the thorns, reaped, made sheaves, threshed and laid up corn in the granaries, if the Holy Blessed One did not produce a little bit of wind for you to winnow, what would you live from? Thus, you must only give Me wages for the wind.Leviticus Rabbah 28:2
In other words, it is a symbolic gift to the Lord for the gentle breeze that enables the farmer to conduct the step of winnowing, which depends on a breeze to blow the lightweight chaff away from the denser grain.
Of course, there are countless other ways in which the farmer depends on God’s directing the natural world to enable human beings to conduct our livelihood. Rain in the right quantities at the right times. Peaceful borders. No blight or insect infestation, and so on. Most farmers lived a subsistence lifestyle, powerless to affect so many of the conditions upon which livelihood depended.
An adjacent midrash makes a similar point.
Rabbi Yannai said: Normally, when a person buys a pound of meat in the marketplace, he has to go through so much trouble and anxiety. [Remember, meat was super expensive in those days, and there was no refrigeration.] But though people sleep in their beds, the Holy Blessed One causes the wind to blow, and raises up clouds, and causes plants to grow, and fruits to be plump, and all we have to give Him [in return] is the payment of the omer. Thus is it written: “You shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest.” (Leviticvus 23:10)Leviticus Rabbah 28:1
In this midrash, Rabbi Yannai describes a number of other ways in which we depend upon the orderly functioning of the natural world: He mentions God laboring to bring wind and rain, cause plants to grow, and fruit to form. And we take most of those phenomena for granted, most of the time. We literally sleep through the cycle of nature.
That is the purpose of the omer offering: to get us to acknowledge how dependant we truly are on God, the director of the natural cycle.
It is a fitting reponse to experiencing the wonder and awe that we feel when we contemplate the miraculous interdependence inherent in the world around us.
What ought we to do as a symbolic offer of the Omer?
Something that would acknowledge our dependence on God, and instill a sense of humility in our relationship with the world around us.
Because I can have a successful garden regardless of whether it rains or not. All I have to do is turn on the tap and add the fertilizer. The reminders of our dependance are less obvious.
But there are so many indications that our relationship with the earth is out of balance: microplastics everywhere – in our water, our soil, our air, and our mountains; increasingly destructive fires, decreasing sources of groundwater.
The world will continue spinning, and the laws of nature will continue to perform as intended by God. Human behavior is the variable in the equation.
Will we stay asleep in our beds while nature moves forward?