The Omer: Finding Hope and Wisdom in the Counting of Time

April 1, 2021Rabbi Allison Berry

We have once again begun our count of the days that fall between Pesach and the holiday of Shavuot. This year, once again, Passover brought unique challenges and even losses. Our preparation – the foods we prepared, the sedersSederסֵדֶר"Order;" ritual dinner that includes the retelling of the story of the Israelite's Exodus from Egypt; plural: s'darim. we created – required innovation and careful thought. As we planned and celebrated, at the forefront was our commitment to remain connected and at the most challenging of moments find meaning in this new way of being together.

And yet, as we move toward the Festival of Shavuot, there are reasons to hope. Much of this hope comes from counting time – setting milestones for ourselves that help us to cope and propel us forward. We count the days until spring arrives, we count the days until our kids return to school, we count and wait for the time when the youngest among us will be vaccinated. We count the days until this virus that has changed our world at long last is eradicated. Counting is an expression of resiliency; a path to believing that spring will come again and our lives can always change for the better.

The concept of counting time is deeply embedded in Jewish tradition. The Jewish calendar reminds us of the obligation to follow the waning and waxing of the moon, the cycle of the tides, and, even more significantly, the cycle of life as each year passes. Tradition teaches that we do not simply let time pass. It is customary to wake up each day and pray Modeh Ani, “I give thanks to You God for [on this unique day] You have returned my soul to me.” This prayer is an expression of gratitude for being alive, as well as a reminder that each day is an opportunity to fashion the world as we hope it can be.

Counting is never more important than during the time between Passover and Shavuot. We call this ritual counting the Omer. Each day we recite a blessing marking that this period of time is meant to be one time of reflection, revelation, and change.

At our Passover seders, we proclaim that God freed us from slavery. However, according to the Torah, despite the parting of the Sea of Reeds, we were not yet a fully realized people. It was during the 49 days of wandering – the 49 days that later became our Omer counting tradition – that we began the long process of freeing ourselves from the shackles and trauma of slavery. And as we did, we began to imagine a world, a community that could be our own. It was in the reflection, in the counting, and in the infusion of meaning and growth into each day that we could finally reach revelation at Sinai.

What a profound lesson this is for all of us, as we too count and consider, wait and hope, as we dream of a brighter future.

Psalm 90 says it best:

“...You engulf men in sleep; at daybreak they are like grass that renews itself; at daybreak it flourishes anew; by dusk it withers and dries up...we spend our years like a sigh...The span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, 80 years; but the best of them are trouble and sorrow. They pass by speedily, and we are in darkness. Teach us to number [count] our days, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.”

Throughout our lives, especially during this past year, we face many hardships. We experience sadness and loss. We hope the grief will pass quickly. Often we push aside our current reality (sometimes it is just too painful), leave all that hurts so much behind, and think only of the past or the future. But by doing so, we inhibit our ability to grow. Our wise tradition understands that in the act of counting time, we can infuse meaning into the darkest (or in some cases the most mundane) of moments.

This year, as we count the Omer, let us not only mark the passage of time. Let us reflect on this difficult and lonely year, acknowledge the losses and the sacrifices, and then mourn them. May we also come to understand this time of counting as the beginning of a new reality – one in which we open ourselves up to all we have learned, explore how we have changed, and imagine who we would like to be.

“God, teach us to number our days, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.”

Learn more about the Jewish practice of counting the Omer.

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