Both the holiday of Lag B’Omer and Parshat Emor, which details the mitzvot of the Omer, occur this week, providing us with a perfect opportunity to ask how it is that a measure of barley flour could be so impactful that it merited three commandments: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the Israelites and you shall say to them: ‘When you come into the land that I am about to give you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring a sheaf, first of your harvest, to the priest. And he shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord to be acceptable for you, from the morrow of the Shabbat the priest shall elevate it… And you shall count you from the morrow of the Shabbat, from the day you bring the elevation sheaf, seven whole weeks they shall be. Until the morrow of the seventh Shabbat you shall count fifty days…’” (See Leviticus 23:9-22)
In this passage, the Torah outlines three distinctive mitzvot: the first, a barley offering, harvested on the second night of Pesah, roasted and ground into flour and offered on the altar the following morning; this sacrifice, in turn, allowed eating grain grown during this new season; and last, the counting of the Omer, which commenced on the second night of Pesah through to Shavuot. All of this “commotion” over the harvest of barley, the earliest grain to mature, but also the least valued grain when it came to human consumption.
The notion that one would go through all of this effort for something seemingly minor piqued the curiosity of the sages: “Said Rabbi Avin: Come see how much Israel troubled itself for the mitzvah of Omer, as it is taught in the Mishnah (Menahot 10:4): ‘They harvested [the barley], put it in a box and brought it to the Temple courtyard; they parched it over a fire so as to perform the commandment that it be parched, said Rabbi Meir. The sages opined: They used to beat it with stalks and husks so the grains should not be crushed. The seeds were then placed in a perforated tube so that the fire would roast them and then were spread out in the courtyard so that the wind would dry them. They were then brought to the grindstone…’ Said Rabbi Levi: So, you plowed, seeded, hoed, weeded, harvested, bound, thrashed, and made from it a grain pile. But if I (God) did not provide a little wind, how would you or anyone live? So will you not pay me a wage for the wind [by offering the barley flour]?” (adapted from Pesikta deRav Kahana 8:1 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 137-8)
The more affluent society gets, the easier it is to see everything in life as an expectation rather than as a gift. The idea that one should be grateful for even the most trivial of things gets lost. We are not used to subsisting on barley. We eat it in soup or as a side dish but barley makes inferior bread and in the ancient world it was mostly used as animal fodder except if you were very poor. Still, this midrash wants to remind us that even barley should not be taken for granted and we should be thankful both to those who provide and most especially to God.