D'var S'phirat Ha-Omer: Counting of the Omer

by Esther Kohn
5771
I am in awe of the spring. For some reason it seems more miraculous this year. I’ve already bonded with my garden, sinking my hands deep into the soil, raking the dirt to wake it up. I uprooted a dying shrub and planted a lilac sapling that my neighbor gave me. I think it worked, it’s actually starting to bud. Each day our devoted perennials, the irises, the lilies, the tulips, they’re all reaching higher almost by the minute. I find it so grounding, literally, to dig in the dirt. There aren’t too many things that ground me in this way. I climb into bed exhausted, waking up with a racing heart, planning how to fit too many things into too little time. And then I start thinking of more things I’d like to do, want to do, have to do. At first this d’var felt like one more obligation to squeeze into a crazy week. But as I started reflecting, googling, and learning, my mind went from aaaaaah what am I going to talk about to…aha, this is a valuable lesson. My d’var is an attempt to ground us in this season within a Jewish context, and explore some spiritual questions along the way. You might know that we are in a special period of time, between Passover and Shavuot, during which we “count the omer.” Seven days a week for seven weeks, 49 days, we keep track of time. We count each day, and recite a blessing. Why do we do this? Well, like they told me in Hebrew School, because it’s in the Torah! Specifically, on page 726 in the parsha Emor, in which God describes several important holidays. Let’s read starting with verse 15 on p. 726: If you look at the note below, you’ll see that sheaf in Hebrew is omer. And in this case it was barley. Barley was the quickest ripening grain, and most fertile. It ripens around this time of year, around Pesach. And about fifty days later wheat is ready to harvest. The description in the parsha follows this harvest schedule. But the counting of the omer has another important function. Shavuot is the exciting culmination of this patient ticking off of days. The Festival of Weeks, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. Shavuot marks the revelation of Torah at Mt. Sinai. This description from Seasons of Joy by Arthow Waskow shows how the ritual counting of the omer is intertwined with the revelation at Mt. Sinai (read on p. 165.) Waskow explains that after the Temple was destroyed, there was no more waving of the omer and no more sacrifices. The rabbis argued, of course, about the exact timing of events, but they emphasized the 49 days as the journey from political liberation to spiritual revelation. It designated a time of growth for the Jewish people. After a dramatic departure from Egypt, 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, burning bushes, etc. we were free. But then what? Complaining, doubting, golden calves…we really weren’t quite ready for Torah. We needed time to mature, grow, and repair ourselves. Just as we symbolically leave Egypt at the seder each year, the counting of the omer provides a chance to reclaim and relive this time of growth. How can we understand this period? We learned how to join together as a community to make a covenant. This was a real paradigm shift, to go from slavery, to freedom, and to eventually join with others and commit to a set of laws and practices. What does it mean, in a contemporary context, to experience liberation and move toward living in a covenantal community? In my twenties, I had my own Exodus from the Midwest. I came to the East Coast to find live in a more progressive city, explore new relationships and identities, and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. It was hard to have so many possibilities. I would describe myself as “lost” in this freedom. I wasn’t ready to commit to much of anything. I was afraid to say, this is who I am. Wouldn’t it limit me? I was afraid to be pigeon-holded and identified incorrectly if I chose the wrong work for me. It wasn’t until I chose a career path many years later that I was able to grow professionally and in many other ways. What does it mean for us, at CDT to make a be part of a covenental community? To live Torah in our lives? This past Wednesday night we held a training for Board and Off-Board chairs, and really anyone who was interested. Reflecting on a volunteer experience that we enjoyed, we described what made it positive. Some of the reasons included: it fulfilled a sense of responsibility, we could act on values that were important to us, we were successful at a task or reached a goal, and perhaps most importantly, it connected us to other people. All of these things are gifts you receive from serving in a community. There is yet another layer to this ritual. The Kabbalists saw this time as an opportunity to strengthen the virtues of the sphirot, emanations of God. They assigned seven of the 10 sphirot to the seven weeks. And each day of each week has a sphirot that is an aspect of the sphirot of the week. We have a chance to work on qualities that we would like to improve or keep in check during this time. This can get fairly complex, with various translations of the qualities, but there are wonderful website that have guiding questions to focus your work each day of each week. If time, I thought we could consider some of these questions…or any others that come up for you: How do you interpret the metaphor of leaving Egypt and moving preparing for Mt. Sinai? What is the difference between freedom from slavery and the freedom to enter into community? What do you give up? What do you gain? What is your spiritual growth work during this period? Tradition says that you can start counting the omer at any point during the period, even if you have forgotten a day or more. But you are not supposed to say the blessing if you forget to count for a day or more. That is because the mitzvah is to do the complete 49 days. But it’s not to late to start. I got inspired to start my omer work!