The Omer, George Floyd’s Murder, and the Essence of Torah (Acharei Mot-K’doshim)

Posted on April 23, 2021

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

From Passover to Shavuot, there are seven weeks:
Seven weeks from the exodus from Egypt to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

It’s a period that is a paradox in Jewish tradition:

On one hand, it is a time of rejoicing—

We are celebrating our new freedom and looking forward to the gift of Torah—and we are gathering in the spring harvest, with new bounty appearing every day.

On the other hand—

It was during this Omer time 1900 years ago that a plague fell upon the students of the famous Rabbi Akiva—Rabbi Akiva who taught that “v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha – loving your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is the klal gadol ba-Torah, the most fundamental essence of all of Torah (Bereishit Rabbah 24:7).

In some texts, it says that the plague that killed thousands of his students was an epidemic of diphtheria. (BT Yevamot 62b)

In other texts, it says that Akiva’s students died because they did not behave with kavod for each other (BT Yevamot 62b):  they did not honor each other’s basic human dignity.  They did not abide by their teacher’s most essential teaching to love each other. 

So, the Omer is also a time of mourning.

(We may have all but wiped out diphtheria in our time; it is the D in the TDAP vaccine.  But epidemic, and the fact that death can be brought about by humans not respecting each other’s fundamental humanity—these are all too familiar in our time, 20 centuries later.)

 

Each day during the omer we count the days and the weeks of the passage of time.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotv v’tzivanu al s’firat ha-Omer.

Hayom shivah v’esrim yom, she’hem shloshah sh’vuot v’shishah yamim la-Omer.

Today is the 27th day, making three weeks and six days of the Omer.

Counting up our growing piles of grain from the harvest. 
Counting up our growing lists of names of the dead. 
Wending our way toward Sinai, with its essential message to love each other no matter how different we are.

In the many, many deaths of the last 14 months—a period that included the deaths of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, and most recently in renowned deaths, Prince Philip of England; along with the deaths of over 3 million people worldwide due to Covid-19—I am sure that no single death has had this country’s attention as much as the murder of George Floyd. 

Tuesday’s verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial, finding Chauvin guilty of all three charges against him for Floyd’s murder, is seen by so many of us as a small but important moment of accountability in the fight for the recognition of the basic dignity, honor, and worth—kavod—for those with black bodies. 

So many important things have been written and said in the last few days about the fact that—as Jeremy Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council wrote this morning—

This was not justice.  Justice would be George Floyd being alive today….  Justice would mean that Black Americans would have the freedom to spend their energy pursuing their dreams, instead of battling unimaginable exhaustion as the result of having to weather chronic and persistent racism.[1]

Instead, this was accountability—and we can allow ourselves this “Dayeinu” moment—acknowledging that this one piece of accountability, though not enoughdayeinu,[2] is worthy of celebration as a step on the long arc of the journey towards justice at its most whole and holy.

 

Along with these texts of our time, in the news, personal emails, social media, and the like, I see our Jewish texts associated with this time of year as providing us with 3 particular gifts for looking at the events of our week and at the moment we are in.

First, this week of the Omer is dedicated to the s’firah, the holy trait, of netzach.  Netzach can be translated as “striving,” as in the reminder to pursue our path, working hard and well.  And it can also be translated as “eternity,” reminding us that the challenges we face precede us and will go on after us.  The deaths of the students of Rabbi Akiva did not wipe out cruelty and lack of kavod, nor will the conviction of Derek Chauvin.  So when we strive, we must do so in a way that honors the longevity of the fight, of the eternal promise of justice that we pursue, even knowing that we will not achieve full justice for all who need it in our lifetimes.  We can search instead for our moments of flow, for being in the sweet spot of getting the work done, while recognizing that it is not our obligation to complete it.

Second, this week we read the double Torah portions of Acharei Mot and K’doshim.  The first, Acharei Mot, means “After the death” and describes Israelites’ actions in the immediate aftermath of the unexpected and unfathomable deaths of Aaron’s sons.  “K’doshim” means holiness, and it begins, “K’doshim tihyu – You shall be holy.”  We learn from the placement of these two parshiyot next to each other that after death there are times when all we can do is strive for holiness, through our most basic of actions:  doing the best thing in a given situation, and then, doing the best thing in the situation that comes up after that.

Finally, this week, we learn in the Torah, nestled between the stories of Aaron’s sons and of the Holiness Code, what Aaron as High Priest did for Yom Kippur to make expiation for himself and the Israelite community.  We learn:  repair is possible; healing is possible; even when we mourn, and even when we have done wrong, we can work to be whole again.

May this be a prayer for us this Shabbat:

May we strive, thought the journey is long.

May we be holy, in the face of death.

And may we learn again that repair is possible—and pursue it
in the recognition that all are worthy; all have dignity; all deserve kavod.

[1] Jeremy Burton, “JCRC:  A Message from the Executive Director” (April 23, 2021).

[2] As noted by Rabbi Toba Spitzer in her newsletter, “Enough/Not Enough” (to be published May 2021).