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counting up

04/21/2022 09:10:27 AM


Rabbi Jeffrey Myers

Have you ever counted the days until an important date occurs, be it a life cycle event, the end of the school year, or anything significant in your life or the life of others? We generally count downward, starting from the number of days until the event, taking off one day each day as the moment nears. Yet we have begun a counting period now within the Jewish year in which we count up. Remember the days when we used to watch the launch of manned missions to the moon? Imagine instead of counting down from ten to ignition to zero, we counted up to ten? Sounds rather bizarre in this instance, but that is what we do in this singularly unique period called Sefirat Ha-Omer, the counting of the Omer. An Omer is a dry weight measurement of grain, equivalent to roughly 2 quarts. Why are we counting grain?

In ancient Israel, the barley harvest began at the time of the full moon after the vernal equinox. This agricultural event occurred before the establishment of Judaism, as did the fall harvest become Sukkot for example. The Jewish observances were added onto the agricultural elements so that we now have components of both melded into one holiday. We find the source for Sefirat Ha-Omer in Leviticus 23:15: And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks [Etz Hayim, p. 726]. The Hebrew word for sheaf is also Omer, and Sabbath was interpreted to mean the Passover festival. But that does not answer the question of why counting upward, and what happens at the end of the counting period?

This counting period leads us to the festival of Shavuot, which is the date that we celebrate God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai and the receiving of the Torah. Certainly the anniversary of this incredible moment is worthy of an annual celebration. Sefirat Ha-Omer became infused with mystical overtones by the Kabbalists who settled in the ancient city of Safed in the 16th Century. It became a time to slow down and take notice of the passage of each day, the blessings inherent in each day, and of spiritual awakening and refinement. In the hustle and bustle of daily life, we don’t regularly give ourselves the time to “stop and smell the roses”. Just as God told Moses what to instruct the Israelites to do in preparation for the theophany (the appearance of God) In Exodus 19:10-14, we too have now entered a preparation period for the anniversary of that moment.

The Israelites could not merely “show up” for the theophany; rather, they needed to prepare for it both physically and spiritually. Sefirat Ha-Omer gives us the opportunity to re-enact this experience, to personalize it, integrate it into our beings, and renew our connection with God. When the Revelation at Mt. Sinai occurred, all future generations are said to have been present. A pact was entered into with God, and the Torah is the record of that pact and what God expects of us, through the performance of mitzvot. Shavuot is the annual renewal of that pact that our ancestors accepted, and our celebration of this holiday is also a celebration of how blessed we are in our relationship with God. Each of us should find a bit of time each time during Sefirat Ha-Omer to spiritually prepare for Shavuot and make a statement about our renewal of our relationship with God. May your counting period be meaningful.

Sun, May 22 2022 21 Iyyar 5782