From the Rabbi - April 2013 Print

 

Dear Friends:

Passover marks the beginning of a trek that our tradition says lasted fifty days, a journey from the shore of the Reed Sea to the foot of Mt. Sinai where the Israelites received the Torah.  This period of seven weeks plus one day is called S’firat HaOmer, the counting of the barley sheaves, in recognition of the fact that this was a time when the first crop of barley was harvested in the fields of Judea.

For the first month of the period, there was a lot of work to do – planting, tilling, weeding, all sorts of agricultural chores.  But starting on the 33rd day of the cycle (Lag b’omer), there was little to do except wait for the growing plants to mature and produce a crop.  According to tradition, it was on this day that weddings were held, since inactivity in the agricultural arena made this a superb time for a honeymoon.  By the 50th day, it was time to go back to work!

If you were not planning to get married, however, the prescribed activity for this time of the year was study, getting ready for the revelation of the Torah by planting seeds of knowledge.  And this reality from our tradition reminds me of something that happened in mid-April in the year 1770.

Moses Lindo was a Jewish merchant in Charleston, SC.  Not himself prosperous, he nevertheless responded to a fund-raising appeal by giving five pounds to the newly-established Rhode Island College (later renamed Brown University).  Why did he do this?  Because RIC had decided to admit students without considering their religious affiliation.  When Lindo had been a young tailor in London, he had been blackballed from the Merchant Taylors School because he had been Jewish; he did not forget that slight. So, when RIC assured him “that the children of Jews may be admitted into this institution and entirely enjoy the freedom of their religion,” that they would be exempt from attending Christian religious services and that they could establish their own Hebrew language program with a Jewish instructor, he was ecstatic.

That latter proposal was never implemented because there were not very many Jewish students in Rhode Island; in fact, as the Revolutionary War broke out, the RI Jewish community was devastated by British attacks.  But this does not diminish the importance of the original offer, which marked the first American proposal for collegiate Jewish studies.  At other schools, Hebrew was taught as part of the Christian theological curriculum by ministers or Jews who converted to Christianity.

So, here we are in the middle of the period of the Omer.  No one of us has any sheaves of barley, so what does it mean to us.  We are fortunate to have much the same kind of leisure that the farmers of ancient Israel had in the late Spring, and we can look forward as they did to the revelation of Torah on Sinai.  We can look forward by immersing ourselves in the books and the magazines that help us understand what the biblical climactic moment has meant over the centuries.  You don’t need to go to Brown or any of the other great universities where there are now Jewish studies programs; you have that availability right in your own home.  Moses Lindo made a financial contribution to get the academic ball rolling.  You don’t need to give a dime.  All you need to do is open the book and start learning.

  Shalom,
         Kenneth D. Roseman, Rabbi