Counting our Days

My column for the upcoming May-June bulletin, posted now as we begin the counting. Today is One Day of the Omer.

For much of the period covered by this issue of our synagogue bulletin, Jews will be engaged in a practice called sefirat ha’omer, the “counting of the sheaf.” Not a useful translation for conveying much meaning, I know. The practice is based on these verses from Torah:

The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Eternal One for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall elevate it on the day after the sabbath…and from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering– the day after the sabbath– you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week– fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal One (Lev 23:9-11;15-16).

While nearly two millennia have passed since the days when offerings of grain were our mode of worship, we still “count the omer,” memorializing the ancient practice.

Counting the omer is a reminder of our history, and it is much more. By counting the days from Pesach to Shavuot, we do a number of things.

First, counting links the two festivals together. Shavuot, which celebrates the giving and receiving of Torah, only makes sense in the context of our liberation from Egypt; our liberation can best be understood as setting down avdut, slavery, in order to enter a covenant of avodah, service. The Rabbis creatively played with the Hebrew word for “engraved” (as in the words on the tablets), charut, reading it as cheyrut, “freedom.” To their minds, freedom is not a free-for-all, but disciplined choice. Pesach and Shavuot: you can’t have one without the other.

Next, counting reinforces a sense of forward motion from one holiday to the next. I wrote two months ago about the broad sweep of this holiday season, beginning at Purim and ending with Shavuot. From Pesach to Shavuot, that sweep is explicit: “One….two….three…” Along the way we encounter the seventh day of Pesach, Holocaust Remembrance Day, the State of Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days, and an ancient festival that falls on day thirty-three.

In my experience, the period of the sefirah is, most of all, an opportunity to cultivate awareness. Each night as dusk falls (or, if we’re regular davveners, as part of the evening service), we stop and take notice of the passage of time. We recite a blessing, and take note of the number of days that have passed since Pesach. If the omer period is about linking the festivals and propelling us forward, the moment of counting is about slowing us down. “Teach us to number our days; let us cultivate hearts of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

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