A Shavuot Teaching for Paid Family Leave

Jews United for Justice's Rabbi-in-Residence Elizabeth Richman shares:

We’re in the midst of a special time in the Jewish calendar. Six weeks ago our community celebrated Passover. In two days we’ll celebrate Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The time in between these two holidays is what we call time of counting the omer.

The omer is liminal time: among other things, it commemorates the seven weeks that the Jews wandered in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Our ancestors had freedom at their back but no clear idea of how to live out that freedom or of what lay ahead for them.

To give structure to the liminal days of the omer, our custom is to count them. Each night after it’s fully dark, we say a blessing and name which day of the omer it is: 1, 2, 3… all the way up to 49. Today is the 47th day of the omer.

We count up from 1 to 49, rather than down from 49 to 1, even though so often in our lives we find ourselves counting down to special occasions. Part of the reason why we count up instead is because tradition tells us that we still have work to do to get ready for the end of the omer and the receiving of Torah. We count up because we’re not quite ready yet. There is a longstanding custom of doing some hard internal work on ourselves and our characters during the omer. The idea is that we need to work at making ourselves and our community ready to receive the inherited wisdom of the Torah.

The period of the omer is a great metaphor for where we are in the Paid Family Leave campaign. In February we had an incredibly powerful public hearing on our paid family leave bill. For so many of us who are here tonight, that hearing felt like the start of a joyful journey toward a policy that will bring healing and stability to our city. Since then, we have been marching together to help turn the promise of that policy into law. Like the Israelites who wandered in the desert, we don’t exactly know what’s coming or what the final law will look like, but we and our community are working hard to make sure that this city receives the best possible legislation.

In these last two days of the omer before Shavuot, everyone is invited to join in on doing the work of making paid family leave a reality. We know we can get from here to there just like ancestors did; we just need to keep doing the work to get ourselves ready. We need to keep making those calls, doing those lobby visits, sending those emails, and meeting with our elected officials until we get there. And I can’t think of anything better than to do it together as a community with all of you.