Thursday, April 12, 2012

Omer

Counting is considered bad luck. The tradition counsels that the more we count the more we come to think we lack. How many people check their portfolios and think to themselves, “Look how blessed is my lot!” I suspect that most instead look at their accumulated wealth and think, “Will there be enough for my family?” How often do we look at the people sitting with us at Shabbat services and think, “Look at my friends sitting beside me!” More often we say, “There should be more people here.” Too often counting leads to feelings of longing, of desires unfulfilled.

Yet, on the second evening of Passover we begin a tradition of counting. Moreover this counting is commanded in the Torah. We count the days from Passover until Shavuot. We count seven times seven weeks. We count 49 days—each and every day.

This tradition dates back to our people’s agricultural roots. Passover was associated with the barley harvest and Shavuot the wheat. The intervening weeks were viewed with great trepidation. Will there be enough grain? Will the harvest be successful. Thus we count.

When counting the Omer, we first recite a blessing: “Blessed are You Adonai our God Ruler of the universe who sanctifies us with commandments and commands us regarding the counting of the Omer.” Then we announce the day. If it is, for example, the 33rd day of the Omer we say, “Today is thirty three days, which are four weeks and five days, of the Omer.”

The question is why in this instance is counting not only allowed but commanded. It is to teach that the freedom of Passover must be linked to the giving of Torah celebrated on Shavuot. It is to remind us that those seven weeks in between leaving Egypt and Sinai were in truth aimless wandering. It is in fact for the exact same reason that counting is discouraged. For 49 days our Jewish lives are unfulfilled. It was not until the giving of the Torah that our freedom gained its true meaning.

The Jewish contention is that freedom is meaningless unless wedded to something greater. Most people think that Moses appeared before Pharaoh and said in God’s name, “Let My people go.” In fact Moses said, “Let My people go so that they may serve Me.” We are not free to do whatever we wish. Our freedom’s purpose is not to fulfill our own desires but instead to serve something greater and larger than ourselves.

Passover without Shavuot is empty. Freedom without service is meaningless.

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