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“And you shall count for you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall they be complete” Leviticus 23:15
Does your Jewish living centre on fulfilling prescribed practices or seeking an ethical end? This ritual v ethical debate divides many of us today but, as two conflicting commentaries remind us, the argument is not new.
One of the many mitzvot listed in this week’s portion is that of the counting of Omer (from the second day of Pesach to the eve of Shavuot): “And you shall count…seven weeks shall they be complete [temimot].” The word temimot can mean either pure or complete but each translation produces an entirely different reading of the verse. The ritual-orientated Sifra reads the word tamim as “complete” and derives from it the practice that each day counted in the Omer should be “completed” by counting from when the (Hebrew) calendar day begins, in the evening.
The more esoteric Midrash Rabbah translates tamim as “pure”. According to this interpretation, the Omer season is a time for increased awareness and meticulous commitment to ethical conduct. The biblical imperative is to create a time of year devoted to “purity” and service of God.
Many generations of Jewish commentators and thinkers were inspired by these disparate interpretations but it would be a terrible mistake to see the two as mutually exclusive. The discipline and continuity of ritual are much-needed assets to the free-spirit. Simultaneously, ethical inspirations break the monotony that often plagues ritual by refreshing our drive towards personal and moral perfection.
So while the two midrashim differ in their approach, a crucial lesson is taught to a divided Jewish people. Embrace ritual and ethical teachings in unison because when divided, they diminish in meaning, yet together, they drive our people forward from strength to strength.