We are in the period of the counting of the Omer. This counting has many levels, as just about everything in Torah has an agricultural level, then a spiritual level often overlayed onto it by the Rabbis in the diaspora:
Agricultural: from barley harvest (Pesach) to wheat harvest (Shavuot)
Kabbalist: a time of aligning of forces, 7 characteristics which we will talk about at the tables tonight but which are kindness, judgement, beauty, eternality, thankfulness, strength, and dignity.
Historical?: the plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s students, miraculously ceased on the 33rd day-L’ag B’omer
Spiritual: The Rabbis assign Shavuot a meaning other than agricultural once in the diaspora: Zman matan Toratanu. They see the counting as getting us from Egypt to Sinai- from slaves to Pharoah to servants of God.
We can see these 49 days are a growth period, Like the growth chart we keep on the doorpost to measure how tall our kids get, the 49 days of Omer are a measuring chart for how we grow spiritually, first as a people then as individual people. Historically we grow:
- from dependence on God to lead us with a pillar of fire and cloud and feed us with manna to interdependence with each other where we grow our own food, offer our own sacrifices and encamp by tribes ready for battle;
- from immaturity to maturity, where we cry over water and quails to where we cry out for justice for the widow and orphan and stranger;
- from individual slaves redeemed from Egypt to a community accepting the Torah at Sinai as one (naaseh v’nishma),
- from a disorganized group of revelers at the Golden Calf to an organized band entering the Land.
- from following the master’s law in Egypt to following our own laws at Sinai.
I want to suggest two more: the first is kind of “ecological.” Counting the Omer gives us an awareness of time and season. An awareness of season: We have only 2 seasons (winter and construction but I like to say winter and summer- we get 2 days of spring then its hot, 2 days of fall then its cold) but the countdown makes us aware of the changing length of day and beginning of flowering. Here in Canada these 49 days are can be seen as our countdown to spring. I’m noticing that the day is lengthening-the first week of Omer the time for counting at sunset was around 7 and tonite its already around 8. What am I doing with those extra hours of light? And an awareness of time: We don’t really wear watches anymore because of cell phones so it’s a kind of day-watch; as liberal Jews we don’t pay too much attention to sunrise/sunset so it keeps us at least aware of day”fall”. My only other way of counting time is my work calendar- not very spiritual! The Kabbalistic counting gives us a certain kind of rythym of behaviour; tomorrow is “kindness of kindness” day etc. The way we count gives us a time-awareness: not only how many days but how many weeks are we at?
The second is the notion of counting as daily prayer: The commentator Sforno teaches that the counting serves as a prayer for the future. In other words, each day that we count we are praying that we reach the 50th day. The framer is praying for the wheat crop. How many of us pray every day? For me, its a chance to say a blessing every day for 49 days. I am forced” to acknowledge a gratefulness for having another day.
In closing, I’d like to leave us with a thought: Samson Raphael Hirsch wonders why we don’t celebrate Shavuot on the 49th day, instead of the 50th. He offers the following:
It is not the fact of the revelation of the Torah, but
our making ourselves worthy to receive it, that our
festival celebrates. It is the day before the Lawgiving,
the day on which the nation finally presented itself as
ready and worthy for the great mission to the world, to
be the receivers and bearers of the Law of God, it is
that day which the fiftieth day of the counting of the
Omer represents. As we have remarked elsewhere, this
Festival, differently to all the others, is not called
after that which characteristically has to be done on it,
but Shavuot, after the counting of the weeks which
PREPARATORILY lead up to it."
Counting the Omer is about a “lead-up.” It’s about the process—the counting—and not the product—Shavuot. Our lives are a “lead up” and we should be counting up to be ready for whatever blessings and challenges the future holds. Shabbat Shalom.