Shemini and the Omer: Strings of Holiness

This episode analyzes – through story and commodity pricing – the meaning of the omer, kashrut and the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. 

Welcome back to the Joseph Cox show. This week’s podcast won’t be entirely from new cloth. I’ve just got so much going on and something I wrote in the past works well for a lot of what I want to discuss. But not all though.

A few announcements though, first.

First, I published an article on TalkMarkets about the grave risks of the U.S. setting international minimum tax rates and trying to determine international social policy. I won’t include that in this podcast, but you can go to TalkMarkets.com and search for Joseph Cox and find it.

Second, I’m founding a new charity. If you are possibly interested in being a board member, let me know. You do know me and I can explain what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and how. I only need one more board member and I want to create a nice mix of people, so so don’t be insulted if I don’t choose you. 😊 Also, if you know somebody who can do ReactNative coding for Android, I’d love to be introduced. I want to modify something.

Okay, on to the Torah!

Again, this will be quick.

First, the Omer. Why do we count it? Or, in other word, w hat does it mean?

We have a few hints.

First, the omer counts of seven weeks. Like a week of weeks. That is pretty suggestive – especially when the simple reading of the text suggests we start counting the Shabbat after the Exodus, not the day after. In that case, we’d be counting – literally – seven weeks.

Second, the omer count starts shortly after the Exodus.

Third, the omer itself comes up shortly after the Exodus in the context of weeks.

That last one is the key. The Ma’an is delivered in a daily omer – not more, not less. An omer is the amount a person needs to eat each day – as we see in the story of the Ma’an. The word is used in numerous interesting places.

The Ma’an omer is used to teach us to trust in G-d and to teach us about the Shabbat. We don’t save food from the omer, we have to trust Hashem will provide the next day. And for Shabbat, Hashem will provide what we need on the sixth day; we get a double portion. We can truly rest with G-d.

To reduce it to a single lesson: we can trust Hashem to provide for us during the week and we can trust in Hashem to provide for our ability to rest with Him.

Yes, we work. But the Torah divorces the concept of creation and actual earnings. We can create and earn nothing and we can do no work and earn. We can be a slave and create and earn nothing and we can reinherit land on the Yuval – despite not having worked for it.

The act of creation is our responsibility, but the earning – whether it sustains us during the week or on the Shabbat – is a gift of G-d.

At the end of the Omer count, this concept is further reinforced. We bring offerings to Jerusalem. But, unusually, we bring fruit and leavened bread. We bring things that represent not our own labor, but G-d’s gift to us. We acknowledge Hashem’s gifts. The omer is a daily, and weekly, build up to this acknowledgement.

So why don’t we eat an omer every day and say a special blessing to memorialize why we do it?

The answer is that we’re growing up. With Pesach we eat Matzah and Marror. We live things viscerally. With the crossing of the sea we have the only drawing in Torah – of the people crossing between the waters. Now we are maturing. We count because we are symbolically representing the original omer rather than literally, childishly, aping what happened the first time around.

So, as you count your omer, thank G-d for your daily bread.

We can even do this a little more literally.

In ancient times, we offered an omer of barley in Jerusalem each day.

For offering purposes, the Rabbis derived quite a large definition of the omer – but I think you’d be challenged to eat 2.5 to 4 liters of barley a day. The recommended daily intake for modern adults is a more modest 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. Averaging the two numbers, this is about 635 grams of barley or 1.4 pounds.

Retail barley prices are a bit hard to nail down – we don’t exactly index it as a core consumer good. Bulk commodity prices are around $100 a metric ton. Wheat is about double that. According to GlobalProductPrices.com, the average price per kilo for wheat is $1.26 in the US and 5.5 NIS in Israel. For 700 grams that would be 88 cents in the US or 3.85 NIS in Israel. Correct for Barley and you’ve got 44 cents in the US and 1.92 NIS in Israel.

Although it isn’t currently my custom, maybe one could express thanks and trust by giving a day’s worth of barley – an omer offering of sorts – when they count and two day’s gift when they count on Friday. It would total up to $22 over 49 days in the US and 94 NIS in Israel.

Okay, on to the Torah portion itself – in rapid fashion. Somewhat rapid fashion. The rapidity is in the preparation, not the podcast itself. I’m going to read something I wrote a few years ago that captures my understanding of this portion.

The boy looks up at me. He has always struck me with his incredibly intense eyes. But there is fear there now, a deep and troubling fear.

“Grandma?” he asks.

“Yes,” I answer, my voice shaking.

“Is G-d going to kill me too?”

I don’t know the answer to his question. How could I? How can I understand what has happened?

I stroke the boy’s hair gently.

“No,” I say, calmly, “G-d won’t kill you?”

I’ve said it, but I’m not sure I believe it. He looks at me, doubtfully. It is time to sleep, but he will be consumed by nightmares. I will be consumed by nightmares. How could we possibly avoid being consumed by nightmares?

One minute, Nadav and Avihu had been approaching the Mishkan our people had built. And, then, the next minute, they had been consumed by a heavenly fire. It had happened only hours ago.

The entire community is still in shock and I know I’m not the only woman trying to calm a frightened child.

And what had Moshe, our great leader, done? He’d tried to make Aaron act as if nothing had happened. But, something had happened.

When Aaron made it clear that was in no state to celebrate, Moshe had accepted that. But then he’d gone on one of his law-giving binges. He’d gone on and on about what kinds of animals and birds and fish we can or can’t eat.

I’m sure the man is holy, but he has no sense for people.

The little boy is still looking at me. He’d only five, but he’s seen so much already. These last few years have been both miraculous and frightening.

I need to give him something to hold on to. But I don’t know what. And then I have an idea.

“Can you see the string?” I ask.

“What string?” the boy replies.

“The string,” I say, “That connects us.”

He looks at me, very seriously, and says, “There is no string, grandma.”

“Of course there is,” I say, “I love you, and that connect me to you. And you love me, and that connects you to me. It’s a string that connects us. You can’t see it, but it is even more real than my hand or your nose.”

His eyes widen. I keep going. “We have strings that go all over the place. Some are thick and strong, like our string. But others are thin and weak.”

He’s listening, carefully.

“But one string is the most important, and hardest to see, of all. Do you know which string that is?”

He shakes his head, no.

“The string from us to Hashem,” I say. “That string is called holiness. And it crosses from our world – where there are physical things and where things change – to His world – where everything is spiritual and where nothing changes.”

“Moshe said Nadav and Avihu strengthened that string,” the boy whispered, “He said their death sanctified G-d. How can that be?”

I’m stunned by the question. The boy listens to everything.

“I don’t know,” I say, “Let’s try to work it out. Let’s start at the beginning. How do you make that string?”

“I-I don’t know,” the boy says.

“Well,” I say, “Then let’s start at the beginning. The way we build our strings, any of them, is by investing in them. We don’t just have an emotion, because emotion alone makes a very weak string. Instead, we build and create and add something physical. And then we consume that physical thing in order to make the spiritual string. Do you understand?”

He looks at me and then says, “Like when dad made the top of our tent by tanning animals skins?”

“Exactly!” I say, “He worked and worked and then used what he worked on for the benefit of his family. And he made the string between himself and all you children stronger.”

The boy smiles widely.

“Do you know who did this first?”

“No,” says the boy.

“Hashem,” I say, “When he created for six days and then rested on the seventh. He invested in our world and then rested in it. And he created holiness as a result…”

“But He killed Nadav and Avihu.”

“He did,” I say, “So let’s keep exploring. How do we, people, create?”

“With our hands,” the little boy answers.

“That’s right,” I say. I don’t know what to say next. I seem to have reached a dead end. And then an idea strikes me.

“Do you remember when Moshe told us about which animals we can eat? Can you remember any of the rules for animals?”

My grandson thinks for a moment and then says, “Animals have to have split hooves and chew their cud.”

“Very good!” I say, with a smile. “Now, do you know why?”

“No,” he answers, a bit disappointed.

“That’s okay,” I say, “Let’s think about our hands. If an animal has no fingers, can it create like us?”

“No,” he says, “It can’t.”

“Right,” I say, “And if it has lots of fingers, like we do?”

“Then it can create,” he answers. “Like us.”

“Right again,” I say, with a smile. “Well, if it has lots of fingers, we shouldn’t eat it. We’d be destroying an animal that can create like us and that would be a waste. We don’t connect to G-d by destroying. He is the Creator and we want to imitate Him. But animals with split hooves just have the essence of creation. They have the symbolism of creation – but aren’t actually creative. So, we can eat them and make them a part of us.”

“Is this what the Kohanim split their fingers, like cows?”

“Yes,” I say, “Kohanim aren’t supposed to be creative like regular people. They are hampered, just like the cows. The Kohen’s job is to actually weave the string using the investments of the people.”

After a pause, the boy asks, “So why do the animals need to choose their cud?” the boy asks.

“Ah,” I say, the pieces clicking together, “Because when they chew their cud, they rest like we should on the Sabbath – living on what we’ve already acquired and resting with G-d. This trait gives them the ability to contribute to the string of holiness.”

The boy thinks for a while and then his eyes open wide. “Nadav and Avihu did this wrong.” he says.

“What do you mean?” I ask. I hadn’t realized there was a connection.

“They only brought incense,” the boy says, “My father taught me that incense represents emotion because smells make us feel things. But they didn’t bring flour, which takes a lot of work to make. And they didn’t bring oil, which takes a lot of purification to make. They didn’t make the string the right way.”

“You’re right!” I say, surprised. I act delighted, but the image of those burning brothers is still burned into my mind.

“Can the birds help us understand more?” the boy asks.

I think for a moment, and then I realize the answer to his question.

“Well,” I say, “We live in a world where our strings can connect to all sorts of things, even things that aren’t real.”

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“We could connect our strings to gods that don’t exist,” I say, “And when we do so, the collection of strings connecting to nothing but because so many strings go there, we think they exist. But only the connections would be real, not the thing they’re connecting to. We can even connect to ourselves, and not really know we aren’t connecting to Hashem.”

“What does this have to do with the birds?” he asks.

“Ah!” I say, “Remember when Moshe told us what birds we can and can’t eat?”

“Yes…” says the boy, his voice trailing off.

“Did he give us a rule?”

“A rule?”

“Did he say something like, ‘you can eat all the red ones?’”

“No,” says the boy, “He just told us which birds we can eat and which ones we can’t.”

“Right,” I say, “That’s because birds are so close to Hashem’s world. Hashem lives in a world without death and there’s nothing dead in the sky. In order to draw close to Hashem, we aren’t allowed to figure out what is holy or not. It is too tempting to pick whatever we already believe in. And if we did that, the strings would connect to something other than Hashem. So, when we draw close to Hashem, He decides what’s holy. The closer you get to G-d, the more He decides what’s right.”

I see the boy’s thinking, and then he says, quietly, “Nadav and Avihu designed their own offering.”

“You’re right,” I say, surprised again. “And we’re so close to G-d, we’re not allowed to do that.”

I am beginning to suspect that this is why Moshe had gone into all those strange laws. He might have been telling us what Nadav and Avihu had done wrong.

“What about the bugs?” the boy asks.

The bugs? I wonder. Could Moshe have intended a message even with the bugs? He always seemed to like symbolic riddles. I don’t know where to start, so I ask the boy.

“Did you notice anything strange about the bugs?”

“Yeah,” says the boy, “He said they go on four legs. But bugs have six legs.”

“Four legs….” I trail off, thinking. And then an idea comes to me, “My beautiful boy, what else does arba, or four, mean?”

“It means ‘multiply’,” says the boy.

“Right again,” I say. “Maybe Moshe was saying that bugs go by multiplying. They don’t act as individuals. They aren’t driven to connect, by themselves. Instead, they act by teeming and producing generations of bugs. We can’t bring that essence into ourselves.”

The boy looks thoughtful. “But what about the ones with jointed legs that jump? How come we can eat them?”

“Ah,” I say, “When you want to go somewhere, how do you get there?”

“I run,” says the boy.

“Yes, you run,” I say, “With your legs. You can go places you choose to go because of your legs. You don’t go places by multiplying, you do it by choosing and then using your legs to get there. Well, the bugs we can eat have legs like ours and they jump up, using those legs to go places and jump towards the heavens. In a way, they have will, just like we do. They have an essence that can be a part of a holy people.”

The boy whispers, “Nadav and Avihu were drunk.”

“Yes, I know,” I whisper back, filled with sadness. I’m not sure why he brought it up.

“I know how they got when they were drunk. It was like they weren’t themselves. The wine took over.”

“I know,” I say.

“They were like the bugs with no legs,” he says, “They didn’t have their own will.”

I just stare at him for a minute, stunned.

Were all of Moshe’s laws teaching us to avoid the mistakes of Nadav and Avihu?

“Let’s try the fish,” I say.

“Okay,” says the boy.

“What’s special about water?” I ask.

“Everybody always says it is spiritual,” says the boy, “Which is why shamayim or ‘heaven’ literally means place of waters. And why Miriam’s holiness gave us the well that travels with us.”

“Very good!” I say, getting the beginning of an idea. “We are surrounded by spirituality, like a fish is surrounded by water. And not just Hashem’s. Just like I said before, we are all trying to connect and so we create a sea of strings.”

“Okay,” says the boy, closing his eyes and trying to imagine what that is like.

“We could just open ourselves up to all of them. We could take in all the spiritual connections. But that isn’t our job. We’re supposed to connect to Hashem. And if we connect to everything, we can’t connect as strongly to Him. He is jealous. He doesn’t want to share us with things that do not even exist.”

“Okay…” says the boy.

“Well,” I say, “The fish need to have scales, to protect themselves from the waters. We use the words for scales for armor. And we need to have spiritual scales, to separate ourselves from other spiritual forces. And fish need to have fins, so they steer themselves through the waters. Likewise, we need to steer through the spiritual waters – so we can find and connect to Hashem. The string from us to Him is only strong if we save it for Him and if we actually try to make it so.”

“Did Nadav and Avihu get this wrong?” he asks.

This time, I have the answer. “They were priests; they were Kohanim. They are supposed to be weavers of our string, but they aren’t supposed to be the people who supply the emotion and investment the string needs to be strong. But they brought incense. They brought emotion. It is what normal people bring. They didn’t make themselves distinct. They lacked scales. And they brought only incense. It was emotion driving them, not true intent. They lacked fins.”

“So, they did that wrong too,” the boy concludes.

“They did,” I agree.

The boy still looks a little sad, and scared. I try to reassure him.

“G-d won’t kill you,” I say, “G-d won’t kill you because you always act with will, like the bugs we can eat. And you make yourself distinct and directed, like the fish we can eat. And you let G-d define what is Holy as you draw close to Him, like the birds we can eat. And you embrace the cycle of holiness, like the animals we can eat.”

I pause for a moment, letting it all sink in. Moshe had been giving a message to all of us. He had been giving us a physical mnemonic so we could avoid the fate of Nadav and Avihu. And he’d done it without ever criticizing the brothers themselves. He may not be good with people, but I can still appreciate what he’s done.

“But how did killing Nadav and Avihu sanctify G-d?” the boy asks.

I draw in a long breath, “Their death showed us how to strengthen the string the right way. It helped all of us make a proper connection with G-d.”

The boy just sits there, a tear suddenly appearing in his eye.

I give him a hug and then whisper, “So long as you remember to connect only to Him, and so long as you do it the way He wants, G-d will grant you peace.”

He’s crying more now. I hold him. He’s exhausted and I can feel the grief pouring out of his body.

Finally, he pulls away and looks up at me. “Thank you, grandma Elisheva,” he says, with a soft smile.

“Sleep well,” I say, gently. “Sleep well my little Pinchas.”

And with that, he lays back and immediately begins to drift off.

Once he is asleep, I stand up and walk slowly from the tent.

He can sleep, but I cannot.

I am Elisheva, the wife of Aaron. And I have lost two of my sons this day.

I have watched their burnt bodies being carried away and even the quiet, beautiful, power of Pinchas’ young face cannot wipe away my horror.

As I exit the tent, the cold night air strikes my face. And then I realize that while I can explain what happened, I will never be able to understand it.

That’s the story. Obviously it has a connection to the Shoah, which is today. I want to give credit to Shai Cohen for the concept of fish being distinct and directed within the waters.

Thank you for reading and Shabbat Shalom.

  1. Yosef Yaffe says:

    Interesting how the price of wheat and barley still has the same ratio as it did in an isn’t times and classical antiquity.

    Arba (four) is spelled with an ayin, and does not mean “multiply” (though it may be related via it’s two letter “proto-root”), however, arbeh (locusts, the kosher insect, does.

    Fascinating to see the the order of parshiyos in Torah explicated so compellingly, and the strands of pshat, remez, drush, sod pulled together so seamlessly (almost unconsciously).

  2. With an eyin, it can mean multiply – albeit in a more sexual sense.

    Vayikra 19:19
    אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ–בְּהֶמְתְּךָ לֹא-תַרְבִּיעַ כִּלְאַיִם
    Ye shall keep My statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle ‘gender’ with a diverse kind…

    It is more directly connected to multiplication through procreation.

    Not sure I follow your last comment. But regarding the first, I had no idea the ratios were the same in ancient times. That is fascinating.

    In Chumash, barley tends to represent that which is lowly and coarse.

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