01 May 2013
A New Offering
On my way to a wedding in the Village on Sunday, I walked past the garden behind the Jefferson Market Library and saw a gated garden in full bloom. Like the phantom limb amputees struggle to face, I reached for my phone to take a picture and send to Mom, only to remember that this year she wouldn't make it to 80. I surveyed the site, imagined her pleasure in the sunlight and the color patterns arrayed, and considered a victory for her legacy that 900 miles from where she's buried, she gets a garden, by proxy.
"One could say, following von Clausewitz, that the cemetery is a continuation of life by other means," wrote Vasily Grossman about the Vagankovo Cemetery in Byelorussia. One can see trains pass between Warsaw and Berlin through the gates, he writes, evoking a European Jewry that is no more.
Describing those with buckets, spades and brushes who head to the cemetery on spring weekends to tend the graves, he writes, "Working in the air feels good. It's satisfying to plant some flowers and to pull out a few weeds that have come up through the earth of the grave...Life is powerful. It bursts through the fence around the cemetery. And the cemetery surrenders; it becomes a part of life."
The time period between Passover, our freedom from slavery, and Shavuot, our celebration of receiving the Law, consists of 49 days, or seven times seven weeks of recognition that just as spring leads to summer, planting leads to bloom and of course, by implication, to full fade and ultimately death. The Omer offering is mandated, by Torah, to be a "new offering." Like the first fruits offered in late spring, it is meant to convey a newness that is radically unique, unlike anything ever offered before. Which of course is rather terrifying if you think about it. It's an offering heavily loaded with expectation, complicated, as these things often are, with a fear of disappointment, rejection, maybe even death.
Perhaps that is why there is a mournful presence to the seven weeks of the Omer counting, the meaning of which the Sages debate. A plague that struck Rabbi Akiva; harsh and hurtful words used within the community; Roman persecutions--all to mitigate the idea that there is no effluence of newness in spring without an awareness of its eventual decline.
I am particularly tuned into this idea this spring as, paradoxically, my mourning for Mom recedes into spring and summer. Her July yahrzeit is on one hand anticipated with relief. It's been a long, hard year. I am eager for a summer of teaching in Jerusalem, to lose myself in this new present, only to be confronted yet again in the fall, with the new moon of the seventh month of Tishri on the Hebrew calendar, with Rosh Hashanah's most challenging prayer, asking: Who shall live and who shall die?
We cast this prayer as one in which God chooses but really, isn't it us? Choosing to live. Choosing not to die.
Eliyahu Dessler taught that at every moment of choosing, a person confronts her uniqueness. Every choice is an opportunity to recognize that no one has made that exact choice, in that exact way, at that exact time. "Since no two human beings are exactly alike, the choice that presents itself to this individual at this instant in time has a unique purpose which can be satisfied by no other person in the whole history of the universe. It is absolutely new. This is what the Torah calls the 'new offering.'"
Last May I took Mom for a walk on her 79th birthday, knowing she wouldn't make it to 80. She was a sport about riding in her wheelchair, picking lilacs, mischievously plucking a tulip and fresh rosemary along our route. It was warm in Milwaukee that afternoon and so we parked ourselves along Lake Michigan and baked a bit in the sun before heading back in the late afternoon for an early dinner. We moved along in silence for few minutes, her eyes closed, holding a lilac branch, inhaling deep its new fragrance.
"What are you thinking, Ma?" I asked.
That I love lilacs, she said. And this tulip isn't half bad, either.
As if she had never encountered them before.
"A new offering."