Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: Where there is no Torah, there is no right conduct; where there is no right conduct, there is no Torah. Where there is no wisdom there is no fear of God; where there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom. Where there is no understanding, there is no knowledge; where there is no knowledge, there is no understanding. Where there is no bread, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no bread. Excerpted from Pirkei Avot 17:3
Nearly 1 in 4 households have experienced food insecurity this year. www.ers.usda.gov
Counting the Omer
Embedded in a series of reciprocal dependencies, in chapter 3 of Pirkei Avot (the section of the Mishnah often translated as Ethics of the Fathers), Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah includes the declaration that, in a more literal translation, “without flour there is no Torah and without Torah there is no flour.” Torah, the beating heart of Judaism, is celebrated as a revelation on the holiday of Shavuot (literally, “the Feast of Weeks”), beginning on this Sunday evening, the culmination of seven weeks of counting (seven weeks of seven days), the 49 days of “the Omer” between Passover, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and Shavuot, which celebrates Moses receiving the commandments, the Torah, on Mount Sinai. The “omer” used to count each day refers to an ancient grain measure, an omer of barley.
At one bookend of the Omer is Passover, the spring festival, full with the symbols of resurrection that rhyme with the earth in springtime: eggs, lambs, parsley or other sprigs of green that remind us that life springs forth from recently frozen ground. The food most associated with this season of renewal is of course, matzoh, the unleavened bread that the Hebrews packed for their journey but that did not have time to rise, bread sometimes called “bread of affliction” or “bread of poverty.” The march through the wilderness in the narrative includes the daily receiving of manna from heaven, and seven weeks after Passover, on Shavuot, one traditionally favors dairy: cheese blintzes and cheesecakes, evoking the fullness of the season after birth and rebirth, plenteous with milk.
Sunday evening, we celebrate the Feast of Weeks, the culminating days of a season that begins with the bread of affliction, when we begin our ordered meal with the words “let all who are hungry come and eat,” moves through the counting of barley towards a night of revelation, the divine gift of Torah, learning and wisdom, so that there may be flour.
The Omer season, on the mythic level, is a march of days through the desert, beginning with the birth of the newly liberated people, to their bar mitzvah—the coming of age, the acceptance of the laws of Jewish adult responsibility. In the synagogue, Shavuot’s special biblical reading is the book of Ruth, which begins with the recollection of a famine in Bethlehem (literally, “the House of Bread”)—there was no bread in the House of Bread—and concludes during the barley harvest, with a baby conceived, a baby who will someday be grandfather to King David, who will usher in the messianic line.
Receiving the Torah
The counting of the omer and the receiving of Torah have a rich life in the Jewish mystical tradition, each week and each day of the week associated with a different attribute of God. One traditional practice for Shavuot introduced by the mystics, is an all-nighter spent studying Torah, with the idea that the Heavens will open for the giving of the Law. This practice connects with the mystical conviction that study and good deeds (the practice of “mitzvot”) repair what is broken in the world, hastening the messianic era. The general practice is called “tikkun olam” (world repair) and the all-night of study is called the “tikkun leyl Shavuot,” the “repair” on the night of Shavuot.
The Book of Ruth is my favorite book of the Bible. I love its wide perspective, how it moves from famine to plenitude, from barren women to the birth of a baby whose progeny, tradition holds, will save the world. Ruth, who might have known hunger, is treated with compassion by being allowed to glean in the fields, and the book elevates the commandment that one must leave the fields’ corners for the gleaners so that the poor will have grain for flour. Ruth is Naomi’s daughter-in-law, and at the end of the story Ruth hands her new baby to his grandmother, who is consoled for her tragic losses in the promise of this new life.
As I write this, I am with my older daughter, who just gave birth to my first grandchild, named in memory of my father, who lost his family in Auschwitz. This tiny child has, of course, claimed my heart and given me an infinite investment in the future. More than ever, I am feeling the urgency of world repair, even as my own world is full with love, joy, and a sense of abundant blessing. I understand how Naomi experienced Ruth’s infant as consolation. And as we emerge out of the restrictions of a global pandemic, and the season warms, with flowers blossoming, I allow myself to feel hope.
The pandemic has forced us to experience our collective and shared vulnerability and fragility. In September I heard a report on NPR (September 27, 2020 Christianna Silva) that stunned me: Silva reported that “Nearly 1 in 4 households have experienced food insecurity this year.” I learned that “even before the pandemic hit, some 13.7 million households, or 10.5% of all U.S. households, experienced food insecurity at some point during 2019, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That works out to more than 35 million Americans who were either unable to acquire enough food to meet their needs, or uncertain of where their next meal might come from, last year.”
Flour and Torah
This year, as I turned my attention to the holiday that is about the revelation of Torah, my first association was to Ben Azariah’s insistence that flour and Torah are mutually reliant on one another. What are we to make of this reciprocity? On the one hand, a hungry person cannot study Torah; distracted by need, by want of bread, Torah cannot receive the attention that is its due. Feeding the hungry is a prerequisite for Torah. But how is Torah a prerequisite for bread? Learning, the ancient rabbi seems to suggest, is what will lead to feeding the hungry. As an educator, I know that learning is not always used in the service of social justice. But Torah-learning, the text insists, turns the heart towards wisdom and goodness; wisdom and fear of God are another reciprocal pair. Torah—celebrated on Shavuot—and learning—the traditional practice of Shavuot—must yield flour; Torah study must provide food for the many who are hungry.
Learning, the ancient rabbi seems to suggest, is what will lead to feeding the hungry … Torah-learning, the text insists, turns the heart towards wisdom and goodness; wisdom and fear of God are another reciprocal pair. Torah—celebrated on Shavuot—and learning—the traditional practice of Shavuot—must yield flour; Torah study must provide food for the many who are hungry.
The seasonal holidays of Judaism reprise suites of stories, moving through the year in the syncopated rhythms of the agricultural cycles, the mythic origin tales of the Jewish people, layered textual traditions, spiritualizing, mystical interpretations, with music, liturgies, and foods that texture these narratives as they make meanings out of the revolutions of the earth around the sun. Sunday evening, we celebrate the Feast of Weeks, the culminating days of a season that begins with the bread of affliction, when we begin our ordered meal with the words “let all who are hungry come and eat,” moves through the counting of barley towards a night of revelation, the divine gift of Torah, learning and wisdom, so that there may be flour.
Torah and flour are mutually dependent … it is our responsibility to address the shame of hunger in our midst.
Every new baby signifies promise. And calls forth holy dread. Alert to the precarity of the future and the ubiquity of want, in honor of Shavuot, I am mindful that Torah and flour are mutually dependent and that it is our responsibility to address the shame of hunger in our midst.