Simultaneous Joy and Pain: The Wisdom of the Counting of the Omer
This year at our Passover seder, I experienced something deeply powerful which I had not felt in the context of Passover before. We spend much of our seder going around the table, each reading a section from the Haggadah out loud. Generally, our seder is populated partially by adults and partially by very young children, so we move from adult to adult, skipping over the smaller folks at our table. But this year, when my husband finished reading his part, our kindergarten-age son said he'd like to read.
Suddenly, space and time expanded for me, though I assume it continued at a normal pace for everyone else. In what must have been only a second between my son’s request to read and his starting to pronounce the Haggadah's words, his entire life flashed through my mind, from his birth until that moment. In those 5 ½ years contracted into 1/60th of a minute, I felt profound, overwhelming joy, and at the same time, an all-consuming sadness. Joy that my son could do what he was doing – that he could read, was growing up, was becoming increasingly less toddler-like – and sadness for exactly those same reasons.
This time of year, we Jews find ourselves amidst the annual observance of Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. Beginning on the second day of Passover, each day we say a blessing and literally count the day and week of the seven-week cycle leading up to Shavuot, which falls on the 50th day. What began as an ancient agricultural/spiritual holiday to mark the weeks between barley and wheat harvests has significantly evolved.
Thanks to the rabbis of the Talmud, we understand the Counting of the Omer as the communal spiritual reenactment of our ancestors’ process of journeying from Egypt to Mt. Sinai, where they were given the Torah. Thanks to the Kabbalists, we also understand the Omer time as an opportunity to refine and perfect areas of our own lives as we leave our individual Mitzrayim (Egypt) and whatever narrow parts of ourselves hold us back – and then travel to a place where we, too, can be open and receptive to whatever Revelation awaits us.
In either case, the most important is the idea that we count up, not down, to express our ancestors’ and our own increasing excitement as they – and we – step closer toward Revelation.
But the period of the Omer is also overshadowed with the tone and rituals of mourning, including the prohibitions against haircuts, shaving, or getting married (except on Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer). The question is: Why the sadness and mourning, if the time should have been completely celebratory? Our ancestors were finally free of Egypt and would soon culminate their seven-week trip with the momentous, holy experience of meeting the Divine and receiving the Torah. Not much to be sad about, right?
When we think about our own journeys out of whatever enslaves us, though, into moments of liberation and redemption and, ultimately, to moments of real awakening and revelation, what are they really like? Are they filled only with excitement and joy? Or are they more complicated than that?
As a rabbi, I have seen this complexity – simultaneous joy and sadness – particularly (but not exclusively) at lifecycle events, both feelings evoked by the same experience. They manifest in tears that society and Hallmark commercials suggest are wholly joyous but that I know also contain honest sorrow. In these moments, we live in both worlds, but we have to make a choice: Which sensibility will we let color our experience? When we arrive at these crossroads, one the path of joy and optimism and one the path of sadness and regret, how do we choose which route to take?
The Omer tradition, linking Passover to Shavuot, gives us the answer. This set of seven weeks enables us to live in the real, complicated world of emotional complexity, fully, experiencing both joy and sadness – incarnate in each day of the counting – but when the last day of the Omer concludes, the mourning ends. There is a reason the Revelation happens on the 50th day the day after the last day of the counting: To experience Revelation, we can't be in mourning. We have to release it and acknowledge that we have a choice to make. Will we view life a diminishing, increasingly limiting countdown to the end – a road that ultimately leads us back to Egypt, to the death of the spirit? Or will we see life as an opening to opportunity, joy, and the promise of a Revelation?
The wisdom of the Counting of the Omer is that it enables us to live in both worlds for a bit. The moments when only a second passes, but a lifetime flashes through our mind's eye, between Mitzrayim and the Mountain, that's when the real awakening happens. But you can't stand at Sinai unless you leave behind the past and Mitzrayim behind, opening yourself to the only place there really is: the present.
Rabbi Wendi Geffen serves North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, IL.
This post is an abridged version of Rabbi Geffen's original post. The full piece is published at Pri HaGeffen.