Separating the wheat from the chaff
There are a lot of agricultural idioms in our language. You can “put cows out to pasture,” but don’t forget that you will “reap what you sow” when your “chickens come home to roost.” You can “take the bull by the horns,” but just don’t “put all your eggs in one basket.” I could go on until the cows come home, but I better stop before my goose is cooked.
Judaism is full of agricultural metaphors as well. Passover marked the beginning of the barley harvest in ancient Israel, which would continue through Shavuot. There are exactly 49 days between them, which make up the Omer, the “counting of sheaves.” We may not be farmers today as much as our ancestors were, but the agricultural metaphors can still resonate. The Omer is a time of spiritual refinement that mirrors the harvest itself. Before it becomes flour, wheat must be planted, watered, harvested, and go through threshing and winnowing.
The spiritual seeds that you plant are the intentions that you set each and every day. Whether you set the intention of cutting someone off in traffic or of being a more patient person, every action begins with an intention; a seed. This is the time of year to set the intentions that will serve you in living a happier, more meaningful life. Your intention might be to be more loving, more structured, more compassionate, more hard working, more humble, more involved with others, or more self-confident. Some Jews focus on a different intention for each week of the Omer.
But the seed will not grow un- less you water it. Our intentions don’t amount to anything unless we develop them into habits. As with intentions, some habits are better than others. The more you act on your good intentions, the more you will develop good habits. It’s that simple. However, there comes a time to gather and examine what you have grown. When farmers harvest the grain, they see whether the crop was successful, and reflect on what made it successful or not. If a habit is not developing the way you hope, it is important to recognize what is not working, and to acknowledge why something might be more difficult than you first thought. That self-awareness will help you be more successful each year.
Everyone experiences difficulties along the way. It might even feel like life is beating you down. Harvested grain goes through a process of being beaten down, called threshing. In ancient times, bundles of grain were beaten with a hammer or other tool to knock loose the nutritious seeds from the stalk. Spiritual work always comes with challenges, but the way we recover from those challenges reveals who we really are.
The last step of harvesting is called winnowing. In ancient times, this was done on a windy day. The seeds would be slowly poured from one container to another, and the wind would blow away any dust and detritus (the chaff) that was mixed in with the seeds. It is important in life to get some fresh air now and again. Our cluttered minds need winnowing to clear out the chaff that can distract us and get in the way of our happiness. So take a deep breath, and take on counting the Omer this year.
Rabbinically Speaking is published as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Tampa Rabbinical Association which assigns the column on a rotating basis.