Today, May 2, is the 17th day of the Omer. Following the practice set forth in this week’s parasha, we have been counting the day of the Omer since the second day of Passover, and will continue to do so until we reach the 49th day of the Omer, when we will celebrate the festival of Shavuot. Of the many curious rituals that we have, the counting of the Omer is one of the most curious of all.
The Torah itself provides virtually no explanation for the ritual at all. All it tells us is that, on the second day of Passover, we are to wave a measure of new barley as an offering in the temple (the measure is known as an Omer), and that we are then to begin counting 49 days. When the 49 days of “the counting the Omer” are complete, we are to offer two loaves baked of the new wheat as an offering of first fruits to God. What is the purpose of the counting? That’s not really clear.
In addition, the rabbinic tradition was unsure at various points whether the counting of the Omer was intended as a personal mitzvah, to be observed in all places and all times. The Talmud entertains the possibility that the counting of the Omer — like the counting of the years of the Jubilee — was intended as a commandment for the High Court alone to carry out, and not intended for each individual. The Talmud also wonders whether the counting of the Omer has any relevance at all after the destruction of the Temple, when the Omer and first fruits offering are no longer being practiced. And beyond these possibilities, later rabbis wondered whether the biblical term “count” refers in any case to a verbal counting. Perhaps all it is requiring is a mental acknowledgment, as numerous other such uses of the same biblical verb connote.
And yet, despite the ambiguity surrounding the reason, and the suggestions that have been made that there is no individual mandate to verbally count the days of the Omer, the practice has persisted, and is regarded as an obligatory mitzvah. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that over the many centuries, we have invested the counting of the Omer with many layers of spiritual meaning above and beyond that which the Torah originally intended.
Twelve years ago, as we celebrated our oldest son’s bar mitzvah on this parasha — and in the midst of that year’s Omer count — I spoke about the meaning that the counting held for me on that morning. I began with the recognition that counting is ordinarily a very utilitarian activity. We typically count things for the very practical purpose of lassoing them in, of getting a clear sense of what they are, so that we can then make use or manipulate this set of counted things for our maximum benefit. Counting is a vital tool for exerting control over, and being able to impose our will upon, the objects and beings in our world. And if it were the case that we counted the days of Omer beginning with 49 and ending with 1, we could fit this counting into the typical model as well. With the counting of each day, we would know how much time we had left until the Shavuot festival, and consequently how much time remained to accomplish whatever tasks we needed to complete by the time festival arrived. (For rabbis, for example, this would help expedite the planning of the synagogue’s Shavuot program!)
But we do not “count down” the days of the Omer. We count up. For 49 days we simply count how many days have passed since the second day of Passover, not how many days are left until Shavuot. What practical, utilitarian purpose could this possibly provide? What could such a count enable us to gain control over? How did it happen that, despite all of the ambiguities and unexplained features of this counting, and despite its lack of functional purpose, that the mitzvah to count the days of the Omer has persisted? These were the questions I posed as, together with the congregation, we were marking our oldest child’s coming-of-age.
And I proposed that the meaning of counting the Omer is to be found precisely in its strange, nonfunctional quality. And that the reason it has persisted as a cherished ritual is precisely the fact that it gives us the ability to control nothing. To the contrary, it highlights, and calls to our conscious attention, the fact that we do not control the passage of time at all. That as much as we might wish that it were otherwise, we live within the steady flow of time. As hard as we might wish to freeze certain moments in time, to stop and remain forever in particular stages of our own lives or of our children’s lives, we are powerless to do so. Time will keep passing, and everything and everyone will keep aging and changing. We count the Omer year after year, verbally, individually, and whether we have barley and wheat offerings or not, because it is our annual ritualized reminder that we are not in control of the passage of time.
Why do we annually call our attention to this reality? Well, both because we need to learn how to graciously “let go” at many critical points in life, and because we need to remember that days only come around once, and we need therefore to make the most of each one. The most profound prayer in the entire book of Psalms is found in chapter 90: “Teach us how to properly count our days, so that we may attain a heart of wisdom.”
I’m guessing it would be too depressing to count the passing days all year round. But in our collective Jewish wisdom, we have realized that it’s a really good idea for a period of seven weeks each year.
Today is the 17th day of the Omer.
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