I’ve been counting every evening since the second day of Passover. It’s an intense and dramatic mitzvah, forcing me to mark the end of every day and the beginning of a new day. It has to be done out-loud, with a blessing. Mental record-keeping is not enough. You have to count verbally. If I forget one night, I can count the next morning—but if I’ve forgotten two nights in a row, I’m done. The counting doesn’t count any more.
Now, we have an Omer-counting device in our kitchen, where we tie a ribbon on a string each night to indicate we’ve counted. But this year after Pesach we just couldn’t find the ribbons and so this year, we had to really remember to do it. It was a challenge t remember this one small detail at the end of every day. Not only because I’m getting older, but really because our days are just so full, and at night we generally just want to fall into bed and forget whats ahead.
The mitzvah of counting the Omer, 7 weeks of 7 days, is directly from the Torah, where we are commanded: Us’fartem lachem— you shall count for yourselves, each one of you individually. It’s not enough for someone to do it for you—not your Rabbi, not your Cantor, not your community. You just cannot fall into bed forgetfully for those 49 nights. It is a consciousness-awakening moment at the time when I am most tired, and most likely to want to quiet my consciousness down. But its a kind of daily modim moment, to take stock and to plan ahead.
There are 2 kinds of counting, Rabbi Ethan Tucker, one of he teachers I have been privileged to study with from Machon Hadar, suggests. One is a counting away from something: its been 2 years since I’ve been sober; its been 2 weeks since my surgery, its been 5 years since the divorce, etc. There is a time for that kind of counting. But its a counting backward, as it were.
In contrast there are times when we count toward something. We count forward. We don’t count down- we count up. This is a count of anticipation, of awareness of what lies ahead. This is the counting of the Omer, and this kind of anticipatory counting brings us to Shavuot, tonight.
We use the expression “ to count your blessings.” It’s no coincidence that Gratefulness Shabbat is on this last day of Omer, Erev Shavuot. We are collectively “counting our blessings” for this congregation and its vounteers. This is a communal modim moment. It is not just a counting backward—”thank you for what you did this past year” but also a counting forward—”thank you for staying active and for being a role model for other congregants in the next year ahead.”
I want to connect this idea of positive counting and gratefulness to an unusual sentence in this week’s regular Shabbat Torah portion. At the end of our triennial portions, we read about the tasks assigned to each tribe. Of course the Cohanim get to be the big bosses, and the Levites get to be the assistant bosses. And then there is the little tribe called the Kohatites.
We read in verse 15 of chapter 4: “When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sacred objects and all the furnishings of the sacred objects at the breaking of camp, only then shall the Kohatites come and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred objects and die. These things in the Tent of Meeting shall be the porterage of the Kohathites.”
So, the Kohatites are the “sacred shleppers” that I so often talk about. Every task in a community becomes a meaningful task, even if it is “only” the porterage.
But the Kohatites cannot touch the things they are to shlep until these objects get covered by the Levites. Why?
Verse 17 answers this question: The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 18 Do not let the group of Kohathite clans be cut off from the Levites. 19 Do this with them, that they may live and not die when they approach the most sacred objects: let Aaron and his sons go in and assign each of them to his duties and to his porterage. 20 But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die.”
Those whose job it is to protect the sacred in a community should not have to see it in its vulnerability, in its “dismantling”; when it is down and out, disconnected, and diffuse.
But I’d like to suggest that that’s not leadership. Leadership is not counting away, but counting towards. Leadership is not when a persn says “we’ve already dn that, lets not try again” but whena person says “I’ll try it, maybe it will work maybe it won’t, but I’ll try.” Leadership is when a person is ready to step forward even if there is nothing to portage yet, even if the tasks, or goals, or plans of the community are not yet ready. Even if the community seems dismantled. Thats when a true and creative spirit of generosity is needed most. In my mind, that is the kind of positive counting up that Shavuot symbolizes.
So I’d like to express my gratefulness to all those who have volunteered in one say or another this year, from taking tickets at a door to measuring the door to potaging the door to opening the door to strangers to closing the door during the silent Amidah and everything in-between that door of the shul we are now and the door to the shul we hope to become in the future.