When I was in my early 30s I joined a havurah, a group of professionals seeking a deeper Jewish involvement. And during this time of year, just after Passover, we didn't know what to do with the counting of the Omer. How could we make it relevant and purposeful?
We studied the commandment of counting 49 days from the second night of Passover until the night before Shavuot, which is featured in week's Torah portion. The mitzvah reflects the agrarian society that existed during the time of the Bible. Passover was the beginning of the barley harvest, and the ancient Israelites were told to bring an "omer," literally a "sheaf of grain," as a sacrifice, a giving back to God, in gratitude for a successful harvest.
After seven weeks, the holiday of Shavuot was celebrated and the bikkurim, the first fruits of the next harvest, the wheat harvest, were brought as another sacrifice of gratitude to the ancient Temple.
An interesting lesson in ancient biblical culture, but what could a group from the Upper West Side do to make this commandment meaningful in the middle of New York City?
Someone suggested that we get together and do our counting each time at different locations. One night would be on top of the Empire State Building, another night would be in Central Park, and a third night would be alongside the Hudson River and so on. This made our counting an exciting, new adventure. It was creative, fun and gave us a chance to socialize. The Sefirat Ha'Omer has never been the same for me since.
Yet, there is an important lesson that stayed with me. The rabbis teach that we count our days to make every day count. Instead of just doing a rote counting, we created opportunities for us to feel alive and full of new spirit.
The challenge is for each of us to create this feeling even when we are counting the Omer at night in our homes. We can move past the agricultural connection and remember our religious history, which states that the counting of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot was the opportunity to prepare to "receive" the Torah, like the ancient Israelites, as if for the first time.
According to kabbalah, we can link each of the 49 days to the seven sefirot, specific aspects of God, which reflect various character traits. Following this profound system each day is an exciting opportunity to explore one aspect of our personality and consider the potential for change and spiritual growth. Each day is unique and what we learn about ourselves can be an unexpected surprise.
We do not bring sheaves of barley when we count the omer in modern times, but we remember that every sheaf brought to the Temple was unique. Like snowflakes and flowers, no two sheaves were ever alike. Each day that the measurement, the omer of barley, was brought, was special, fresh and new.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman notes that there is an important parallel between the uniqueness of barley and the words of Torah. As we prepare to receive the Torah on Shavuot, we exclaim how each encounter we have with Torah is unique and creative just like nature itself. Hoffman quotes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who thought of the universe as a river, holding that everything is in such a flux that nothing is ever repeated, which is to say we "never step in the same river twice."
We do not have to go to the top of the Empire State Building to have an adventure. Counting the omer with the kabbalistic system reminds us we never step in the same river twice. Each night is an adventure as we explore hidden aspects of our personalities and revel in the awareness of our unique selves. The counting of the omer reminds us that we count.
Toba August, rabbi of Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles, can be reached at email@example.com.
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