As the Women's World Cup is broadcast around the world to massive audiences; as the 2020 Presidential election begins to elevate the voices of no fewer than six female candidates; and as the #MeToo movement continues reshape the nature of America's relationship between the two sexes, the Torah also, ever-so-briefly, reflects on women as well. The midsummer parsha of Pinchas will falls this year in late July, containing within in the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. As you likely know, Zelophehad dies without sons, and so his brothers are designated by the Torah to be the heirs. His daughters are to get nothing.
It is an injustice towards women, and not the only one we see in Torah. Biblical society 3,000 years ago was was patriarchal and patronizing. Women were a lower category of citizen, with fewer rights and protections. With a few notable exceptions, women did not serve as familial decision makers, and women were not in roles of leadership.
The daughters of Zelophehad appeal to Moses regarding their plight. When they point out that the situation is unjust, Moses agrees. The law is changed.
And so law and society would continue to change for women, with glacial slowness, for the next 3,000 years. Women today have jobs; women can vote; women are equal to men before the law. In Judaism, women can read from the Torah and put on tefillin and become rabbis.
But women are still not equal to men, and our society still has a long way to go to get there. The US Women's National team is suing US Soccer to be paid equal to the men. Fully 242 years into America's history and we still have never had a woman president. And it took decades of crass jokes about 'casting couches' and 'old boys clubs' and 'locker room talk' before our nation finally woke up to the truth - that lewd talk and sexual assault in the workplace were commonplace, and disgusting, and that it was long past time for such garbage behavior should have ended.
Many workplaces and professions are still unequal and uncomfortable for women. Men still dominate the leadership of corporate America and academia and the rabbinate. In 2019, a women still only earns $0.79 to every dollar that a man earns.
We have a long way to go. The fight is not over. The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is to be read, then, each and every year, as a call to action to change the things that must be fixed. Someday it will be a quaint story of olden days when things were unequal. Until that day, though, we must always be vigilant and willing to fix the broken systems or inequity, as Moses would have wanted us to.
- Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
The upcoming holiday of Shavuot is weird, man. It's one of the three pilgrimage festivals, but unlike Sukkot and Passover which are eight days long, it has only two days. While Sukkot is principally oriented around the essential mitzvah of building and dwelling in a sukkah, and Passover has the mitzvah of avoiding Chametz and eating matzah, Shavuot has no key mitzvah. Even the name 'Shavuot' isn't indicative of the holiday at all: it's a reference to the counting of seven weeks from Passover to the holiday of Shavuot itself - as if we called the Super Bowl 'the game that concludes the 16 weeks of the NFL season.' The name pays no attention to the other reason we observe the holiday - as a celebration fo the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Like I said, weird.
To that, Rabbi Levi Yitzhok of Berdichev has an answer. The holiday is a celebration of the giving of Torah, for sure. It's also an opportunity to do the standard festival holiday observance of reflecting upon the days of the temple and the priesthood and the bringing of offerings to Jerusalem. But for Levi Yitzhok, Shavuot is also about the celebration of completion, a ceremony we call a 'siyum' - 'conclusion'. Much like when we finish a tractate of Talmud, or a birthday even, a siyum is an opportunity to pat ourselves on the back for an accomplishment in the past, like the completion of a book or having finished another trip around the sun. Shavuot is a marker that we counted the omer, each day, seven days a week, for seven weeks, and we are patting ourselves on the back for reaching this auspicious occasion. Shavuot, then, is not about the 'now' of the holiday on that day. It's about all the days leading up to it, and all the effort of counting the Omer each night.
The holiday on a larger scale is a reminder of the old adage that you get out what you put in. Counting the omer each night culminates in a celebration for the achievement of counting the omer, much as a college graduation is not just the celebration of the passage of four years but rather a celebration of all the hard work a person does to get there. We should look back at times to celebrate the great moments in our lives, but specifically when those great moments are the product of our own hard labors, our hustle, and our drive. We must remember to celebrate in our lives, but we must also do the hard work in order to merit those celebrations.
- Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
The period between Passover and Shavuot includes the strange ritual of the Counting of the Omer, in which, each day in ancient times, sheaves of barley were brought to the Temple at Jerusalem each day, for forty-nine days. The number forty-nine, of course, is seven complete cycles of seven, and seven - the number of days of creation, and in a week - is a Jewishly significant number that comes to symbolize perfection and wholeness.
But today, without a Temple, we don't bring barley anywhere. We just say a blessing and count - 'today is the sixth day of the counting of the omer', and we have fulfilled our obligation. It is strange. It feels a little hollow.
Much has been made of this by commentators. It is interesting that we count up to Shavuot - the holiday of the giving of the Torah - and not down. The kabbalists added specific meaning to each of the days, hooking it to one of the 10 divine 'sefirot' -emanations - of God, so that the first day is 'chesed she'be'chesed' - 'lovingkindness within lovingkindness', and the second day is 'gvurah she'be'chesed' - 'strength within lovingkindness', and so forth. And those and the many other interpretations elucidating the hidden meanings of the Omer are all very well and good.
However. Counting the Omer is great for the simple reason that it is simple. You say a blessing. You count. You are done. It allows for a person to connect backwards to a time in our history with a simple act that takes virtually no effort - no schlepping to shul or cleaning the house or fasting or buying an expensive ritual object.
The great gift of counting Omer is its simplicity, but also its relevancy to just a thin sliver of time. That day of the Omer comes and goes, and then we count again, and again. The great New Age spiritualist Ram Dass famously taught 'Be here now', that being present in the moment is critical to consciousness, meaning, and well being. Nothing is more 'be here now' in essence than the counting of the Omer, a ritual which simple says 'this moment right now matters. Let's be present for it.'
- Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader of Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, PA. These are a collection of thoughts and writings since he joined the community in Erie. For more of his past writings, click here.