D’Var Torah: Counting the Omer

Cantor Sarah Sager shared  these remarks at the May 8 Shabbat Evening Service which was streamed.

I have been struck, and even strengthened, over these last many weeks by the confluence of our Jewish calendar with the unfolding reality of living during a global pandemic.  While news of its nature and imminent arrival were already being reported, the last time our community felt safe enough to gather publicly was for our celebration of Purim.  By the end of that week, we were live-streaming our Shabbat Evening Service from an empty Sanctuary and, exactly four weeks later, Jews all over the world were preparing for a novel experience in on-line, virtual Seders.  In a grotesque inversion of intention and innocent pleasure, the masks of Purim now seem to have foreshadowed the mortal seriousness of the face masks we all now wear for a far different purpose.

There have been few Passover observances that resonated as personally and powerfully as this year’s did with the themes of slavery and freedom,  of waiting and watching for deliverance, of the horror of plague, the persistence of questions, the variety of responses that made us all feel like bewildered children, and the fervent hope that next year will truly bring us to a Jerusalem of health and strength, of lifted restrictions, of physical proximity to our community, friends, and loved ones, and to a healing renewal of the soul and of the spirit.

We are now approaching another major festival in our ritual year, an observance whose very purpose is to make possible that vision of a better world.  It is our festival of Shavuot, our Feast of Weeks, the time of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  It is the next major stop in our liturgical calendar and represents our highest vision of humanity and of our world redeemed.

Our Festival of Freedom or Pesach, and our Festival of Revelation, of the giving of the Torah, or Shavuot, are exactly seven weeks apart, and are bound not only thematically, as we move from physical freedom to spiritual freedom, but are tangibly, materially, connected by a lesser known ritual practice in our calendar, called the Counting of the Omer.  The Counting of the Omer is first mentioned and described in this week’s Torah portion, Emor:  “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, the omer, to the priest….And from the day on which you bring the Omer…you shall count off seven weeks.  They must be complete.”  (Lev. 23: 10, 15)

These instructions for counting the Omer are part of a larger passage concerning all of the major holidays that instructs us: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.”  These verses are so important to our identification and definition as a people, that they appear out of order, as the special Torah reading for our Festival of Pesach.  This portion falls in the middle of the Holiness Code, the section of Leviticus that describes the ways in which the people of Israel are to sanctify themselves and live holy lives.  One of the ways in which we do that is to create “islands of time”, an annual sequence of holiday observances that serve as havens of both memory and of aspiration that transport, transform and uplift us to realms of the spirit where we are reminded that we are creatures imbued with a divine spark, a spark of goodness and nobility, of inspiration and capability, that humanity is not condemned, as is the rest of God’s world, to endlessly repeat the cycles into which we were born or of which we are embedded as part of nature.   That we were created in the divine image is not some platitude, some slogan, some nationalistic jingoism, it is our reality, our destiny and our responsibility as human beings.

We are endowed with intelligence, discernment, skill and ability.  We have the capacity to dream, to grow and change, and that is why we believe in a God who entered history to partner with a people that could shape history, that could envision an ascent from the depths of human depravity to the heights of freedom governed not by license but by law, a law of justice, equity, righteousness, and compassion.  That Law has been transformative in the story of humanity even while it has remained more of a goal than an achievement.  That Law, our Torah, continues to stand as the beacon, the apex, the standard of human behavior that, if realized, would bring a truly unprecedented time of unbounded human potential, released for good.

This Messianic Age of our fervent hopes is, and has been, worth working for, worth dying for, and most importantly, worth living for.   And the moment at which that Law entered history is worth anticipating – every year, for seven weeks (Seven is the number that represents completion or perfection in Jewish tradition.   Thus, seven weeks times seven days each week equals perfection multiplied by perfection and, with the 50th day added, leads us to Eternity.)

That is what we do when we count the Omer.  As Abigail Uhrman of the Jewish Theological Seminary reflects:  “This year, the ritual of counting and charting a journey from oppression to freedom feels particularly appropriate, and the Jewish practice, here too, has powerful tools and traditions upon which we can draw.  The Omer is a strange time: in the rabbinic period, it is described as a time of tremendous grief when scores of Rabbi Akiva’s students died of a mysterious plague.  In turn, the Omer period is observed by enacting a number of semi-mourning practices: no haircuts, no shaving, no performances, and no weddings.  Still, despite these restrictions, Shavuot is on the horizon.  There is a hopefulness to our counting,  counting that goes up, not down.  It is a counting up in anticipation, in growth, expansiveness, increase.

An agriculturally based ritual of thanksgiving is transformed into a ritual of spiritual potential, promise, expectation, and expansiveness.

It is a ritual, ultimately, of ascent, of rising from the ashes of every destruction, of rising from the paralysis of pain, loss, grief, uncertainty, and even defeat.  It manages our expectations. This is not an overnight journey.  It takes time and energy and effort.  It takes investment of self.  So, as our ancestors did, as Jews in every generation have done, we will continue to count:  with hope, with expectation, with realism, and with faith that in the exercise of our divine gifts humanity’s ascent will continue to a place worthy of God’s loving Creation:

To love God — that’s a tall order.
Does the Milky Way notice me?
The Horsehead Nebula? If I’m a speck
of dust compared with their grandeur
how much smaller I must seem
to the One Who made them. And yet —
the mystics say the world was born
because God was lonely. She wanted
to sit in her rocking chair and chat
while She knitted the sunset clouds.
How could I not love the One Who whispers
exist! and the daffodils bloom?

–Rabbi Rachel Barenblat (“Velveteen Rabbi”), Omer Poems