Ask a little kid how old they are and you will very rarely get a round number. Instead of 4 years old they might say, “I’m four and three quarters” or “I’m going to be five in thirty-four days.” Kids learn very early to count until their next birthday. They will count until the time they have special parties, cake, presents, and they hope, fun.
As a people, we are in our time of counting. If the first night of Pesach represents the day that the Israelites left slavery, the second night begins our counting of the Israelites’ travel from slavery to redemption. Known as the period of the Omer, we count the days from our festival of freedom, Pesach, until our receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Shavuot.
“In the Temple days the grain harvest was initiated with an elaborate ritual, the climax of which was the waving of a measure, an Omer, of barley at the altar by the officiating Kohen. This measure of barley was reaped on the second day of Passover and brought to the Temple for the ceremony.” So the grain harvest which began with the full moon of Pesach ends seven weeks later with Shavuot.
The Torah explains the procedure in next week’s portion, Vayikra Chapter 23:15-16. (Etz Hayim, page 727.)
“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the wave offering — the day after the Sabbath (referring to the Pesach festival) — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week — fifty days, then you shall bring an offering of new grain to Adonai.”
After the destruction of the Temple, the offering ended, but the counting continued. Counting begins at the second seder, and is incorporated into the maariv service. Although counting the Omer is a separate mitzvah. So if you forgot to daven, or simply are not going to, you can still count the days of the omer. The custom is to count after dark as that is when we begin a new day. In many communities, this is also seen as a period of mourning, so there will be no weddings or public celebrations.
In modern times, many of us have taken on this ritual and search for new meaning in this time. The period of Omer is considered to be a time of potential for inner growth. In Kabbalah, each of the seven weeks of the Omer-counting is associated with one of these sefirot: chesed — kindness, gevurah — might, tiferet — glory or beauty, netzach — eternity, hod — splendor, yesod — foundation, and malchut — sovereignty. Each day of each week is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine permutations. Symbolically, each of these 49 permutations represents an aspect of each person’s character that can be improved or further developed.
For me, the counting of the Omer is a way to add a daily ritual that brings me closer to God and Sinai. Each night, we count together as a family, reminding me of the journey of the Israelites. An although we only count the first forty-nine days of the journey and thankfully not all forty years, this gives us a taste of what it might have felt like to have experienced those first few weeks of uncertainty. What was it like on day seven when they reached the sea? What was it like to watch Moses leave them to go up the mountain on day forty nine? What happened on the other days? Were children sick? Was the matzah that they left with eaten? Was it noisy? Were people hopeful? Scared? Joyful?
Although we are only a bit more that halfway there, this time period always reminds me of a poem by Merle Feld.
We All Stood Together
My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one of my friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
As time passes
the hard data
the who what when where why
slip away from me
and all I’m left with is
But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute
my brother is so sure of what he heard
after all he’s got a record of it
consonant after consonant after consonant
If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
For me, the Omer is all about recreating holy time and creating sparks. And when we reach the 50th day, I can only wonder what will be revealed?
Abraham Milgrom, Jewish Worship, JPS, 1971
Merle Feld, A Spiritual Life, State University of New York Press, 2000