REFLECTIONS ON COUNTING THE OMER
We are told in Leviticus 23:15-16 starting with the eve of the second day of Pesach, (when in temple times we are to bring an omer of barley as an offering) we are to count seven weeks, 49 days. The day after the end of seven weeks will make fifty days. We are then told the fiftieth day is to be a holiday. The holiday referred to is now known as Shavuot (weeks). It was originally designated as an agricultural festival in which the first fruits of the harvest are to be brought as an offering to the temple. Of course, as out society became less agrarian, and harvest festivals had less practical meaning, the rabbis did some quick math and concluded that the fiftieth day from Pesach was also the day that the Torah, or at least the “Ten Commandments” were given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
We all have calendars and know that the fiftieth day after Pesach is the sixth of Sivan. So, what is the point in counting? First and obviously, it is a mitzvah d’oraita, a commandment ordained in the written Torah so mandatory even without an apparent reason. But, with addition of z’man matan torateinu’ (the time of the giving of the Torah) to the meaning of the festival, we can now see ourselves as having time to reflect on the what it means to us to celebrate the giving of the law to us through Moses at Sinai so many years ago.
Those of us who take our tradition seriously see the Torah, whether dictated directly to Moses at Sinai or as the work of holy and God-inspired humans, as great gift. It is the basis of our people’s belief system and our traditions; of the laws and customs that guide our lives and unite us. Keeping track of the days leading up to a special occasion adds to the excitement. Think of a child counting off the days until their birthday or a couple until their wedding. Or even the countdown leading to the launch of a space vessel. As the moment approaches, the excitement and anticipation build. I understand that objection can be raised that these examples all involve count-downs while the omer period involved a count-up. Part of the answer is that we are keeping track of the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot and that counting up is what the mitzvah says. I see it as analogous to the procedure for lighting Channukah candles. We light an extra candle each day, rather than starting with the full complement and gradually diminish as the oil burns out, to remind us of the growing enormity of the miracle of the oil continuing to burn. Likewise, the significance of revelation expands in our imagination as we number the days we have been waiting and preparing.
Prepare, in my opinion, we must. A gift, however great, is no real gift unless it not only given but received and accepted. As preparation for receiving and accepting Torah at Sinai our ancestors were told to purify themselves. We, being more intellectually bent and supposedly sophisticated, can prepare to commemorate the moment of revelation and accept the Law as our own, have fifty days to open our hearts to greater understanding of what is expected of us. Each new day I count is a moment to ask myself “what have I done with the last x number of days?”