Last Friday night I spoke about the counting of the Omer. I’d like to share these words–and the challenge—with all of you.
On the second night of Passover, many of us participated in a curious and obscure ritual known as S’firat HaOmer – the Counting of the Omer. I imagine that many of you did not grow up performing this ritual at home – and still may not do so. However, the Torah teaches us that beginning on the second night of Pesach we are supposed to count the Omer, day by day and week by week, until we reach 49 days.
What’s an omer? A measurement of grain.
Why 49 days? Because on the 50th day we reach Shavuot – the Festival of Weeks, the Season of the Giving of the Torah, the Festival of First Fruits. Shavuot is the only festival or holiday mentioned in the Torah which is not given a specific date on the calendar – rather we reach Shavuot by counting the Omer.
The meaning of the counting of the Omer – then and now.
In ancient times, the Omer counted out the 50 days from Pesach, the harvest of the barley to Shavuot, the harvest of the wheat. The Israelites would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem for Passover. They would bring offerings of an Omer of barley from their harvest. On the second day of Passover the Priest would offer the Omer as an expression of the farmer’s gratitude for his bounty. Only then could the farmer eat from the balance of his barley harvest. On Shavuot, the same farmer would bring an offering from his wheat harvest to the Temple.
So, on one level, the counting of the Omer expresses our concern that we will have enough food to sustain ourselves physically.
The counting is also a constant reminder of the connection between Pesach and Shavuot:
Pesach celebrates our Exodus from Egypt: our “freedom from” darkness and confinement; our freedom from slavery and deprivation; our freedom from all the narrow and confining places in our lives.
Shavuot celebrates a free people freely accepting Gd’s gift of Torah. In a sense, Shavuot celebrates “freedom to”: to a life of devotion and meaning, a life informed by the light of Torah. For freedom without structure, without moral guidance, is meaningless.
And the days between Pesach and Shavuot – the days on which we Count the Omer – remind us that the journey from physical freedom to inner freedom takes time. The Slonimer Rebbe taught that while Gd took us physically out of Egypt on Pesach night the spiritual Egypt, and all of its enslaving aspects, were still within us. The days of the Omer signify 50 inner steps that lead up the staircase to freedom – the steps of an inner journey towards freedom.
The mystics of Sefat assigned a combination of Gd’s seven aspects – or S’firot – to each of the 49 days of the Omer: Gd’s Kindness, Discipline, Compassion, Endurance, Humility, Foundation, and Sovereignty. For example, the first night is dedicated to refining our kindness – our ability to be truly generous. In this way, the Omer offers us the opportunity to fix world, our relationships, and ourselves. It is a time to mend our spirits and souls to be ready to receive the Torah.
Similarly, the counting of the Omer has been described as “a mindfulness exercise”, keeping us aware and helping us to prepare spiritually for our own recommitment to Torah on Shavuot.
How many of us can be disciplined and mindful enough to remember to say the blessing and count the Omer ever night? How many of us can find meaning in this ritual? Perhaps the Counting the Omer can serve as a reminder to appreciate and to purposefully use every single day of our lives. In a sense it is “an extended meditation on the nature of time, on making every day count.”
The Psalmist says: “teach us to number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”
Abraham Lincoln said: “And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years.”
I’m reminded of the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes (which we read on Sukkot) – who names himself Kohelet but is thought to be King Solomon. He appears to have it all: he has built beautiful dwellings, palaces, vineyards, and pools; he has acquired great treasures of gold, silver, fancy art, servants, maids and more. A man of great wealth and yet he is unhappy – something is missing from his life. He started learning many languages, traveling, and writing books – and he is still unhappy; there is no rest for his mind and soul – he is still yearning.
G-d gives each of us one life: What are we going to do with it? How can we make our lives count? How can we make the Counting of the Omer count?