Take a trip down a rabbit hole with me. A few weeks ago, we observed Passover. This year I participated in four Passover observances: our community’s first Seder at Langley’s restaurant, a family second Seder at Lisa and Pete Marcus’s house, a very special Passover Kiddush with residents at StoneRidge Senior Living Community, and the pinnacle of Passover storytelling at the Feinstein Family Sederama. Each was unique, beautiful, and meaningful because of the care and creativity of the organizers. Each gathering was both a retelling of our ancient Israelite Exodus and a contemporary offering.
In ancient times on the day before the festival, community representatives would go out into the fields and tie up bunches of mature barley stalks. After the festival, they would return to the field and reap the tied sheaves into a basket. The grain would then be threshed, dried, and milled to produce barley flour. Finally, they mixed the flour with oil and frankincense for the Omer offering. I’ve tried to keep this explanation very general because, like everything Jewish, there is plenty of debate on the process. The Torah tells us to count seven weeks from this offering until Shavuot, which aligned with the beginning of the wheat harvest.
I’ve always been interested in the agricultural links of both Passover and Shavuot, especially the timing. While counting the Omer, I usually find an entrance to my Omer rabbit hole. I search the internet for articles about the timing of barley and wheat harvests. This year I found two items of interest. For the first item, I give credit to Frank Nelte, who posted a letter he had in his possession from an agent in the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture extension service in 1983. The agent explained the timing of the barley harvest in the modern state of Israel. Typically, the barley harvest in modern times is in late April and early May, depending on climate conditions. The agent explained that the harvest would have been a few weeks earlier in ancient times because of harvest methods. Modern automated harvesting requires a much lower moisture content, so the barley must dry in the field longer. I have studied this before, but reading the Israeli Ministry of Agriculture letter was very interesting.
The second item of interest I found on my trip down the Omer rabbit hole was a presentation from graduate students working with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. Their presentation focused on the history of barley cultivation and modern problems, research, and practical solutions. In the penultimate slide of their presentation, a quote by Charles Eliot caught my eye, “…a good past is positively dangerous if it makes us content with the present and unprepared for the future.” So, I went down another branch of the rabbit hole to find that Charles Eliot was President of Harvard University from 1869-1909. At that time, there was a pitched battle between those who insisted that colleges focus on classical education. I found his quote in a printed edition entitled, Inaugural Address as President of Harvard College. In its 38 pages he eloquently outlined the necessity of transforming higher education. Eliot saw the need to dramatically expand the focus of colleges and universities on science and its practical uses. He is credited with transforming the entire college and university system from strict classical education to an expansive education system grounded in science and specialized areas of study.
I emerge from the Omer rabbit hole with the past, present, and future in mind. Reform Judaism is solidly grounded in our past’s moral and ethical teachings. But as Reform Jews, we are cautious about how tightly and in what ways we hold onto our Jewish past. Further, we insist our Judaism be creative and transformative, respond to modernity, and prepare us for a future we cannot yet imagine. We cannot be stuck in our past lest our future withers in the field.