Counting the Omer is one of those things that has become a game. The longer I stay in the game, the more of a chance I have of winning. If I forget to count a day, I’m out. Me and my siblings have a contest every year of who can ‘stay in the game’ for longer. But we never really stop to think what it is we’re counting for.
The forty-nine days of the Omer are counting down the days from leaving the bondage of Egypt until the Jews reached Mount Sinai and received the Torah. These are forty-nine days of anticipation, waiting for that miraculous day, when it is believed that God gave the Jews His code of law. And so they should be days of excitement and celebration- in only a few days is one of the greatest holidays on the Jewish calendar!
Why, then, are there customs of mourning during the Omer? During the first thirty-three days of the Omer, Rabbi Akiva, one of the most prominent Rabbis of the end of the first century, watched as thousands of his own students died. The Talmud says that these students died because they failed to treat each other with respect. It is during these days that mourning customs are practiced. Men do not shave, haircuts are not given, parties and celebrations are not had. On the one hand, we are mourning such a great loss of Torah study- Rabbi Akiva’s students would undoubtedly have gone on to become great Torah scholars. On the other hand, we are mourning something just as important- the loss of respect between people.
At a time when we are counting down the days until the Jews received the Torah, that excitement is outweighed by this loss. And even though they were brilliant in their Torah learning, Rabbi Akiva’s students died because of their personal, human relationships. That is to say, that moral action seems, in a sense, to override Torah study. And as we anticipate the receiving of the Torah, it is important to keep in mind that we must have our morals in tact, and treat each other with love and respect.
It fits nicely that during this count, in between Passover and Shavuot, fall Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. They are each, in a way, a modern day reflection of the Biblical holidays. Yom Hashoah seems to be the Passover of today. Just like thousands of years ago the Jews were freed from slavery and oppression in Egypt, sixty-nine years ago, the Jews were freed from slavery and oppression in Europe.
Many say that the first step for the Jews to becoming a nation was receiving the Torah at Sinai. Their moral code was what formed them as one cohesive group. The second step was establishing their homeland- coming to Israel. It’s beautiful, then, that Yom Ha’atzmaut falls out just before Shavuot. Just like thousands of years ago, the Jews took their first step in becoming a nation at Sinai, so too sixty-six years ago, when Israel was established as a Jewish state, they took the next step in becoming a nation. And all the while in between, from being freed from slavery to becoming a nation, Rabbi Akiva’s students remind us that kindness and morality stand above all.
To all who have the privilege of competing with their siblings in counting the Omer, I wish you the best of luck, and may the odds be forever in your favor.
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