Shemini/ Omer: Counting This Day

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shemini

Greetings! I hope everybody had a good holiday and is making a happy
transition back to “livin’ la vida leavened.” This week’s Torah
portion is Shemini, which itself is about transitions– Aharon and
his sons complete their inauguration into the priestly role, but two
of them die as a result of offering “strange fire” in the Sanctuary.
The rest of the parsha concerns itself with priestly offerings and
the dietary laws.

The death of Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s sons, is one of the most
tragic and moving episodes in the Torah- we will not today explore
the the various theories and interpretations of their deaths, but
only note Aharon’s famous response- he was silent. (Cf. Vayikra/
Leviticus 10:3.)

This silence, described in only two words by the Torah, is a jarring
contrast to the 8 days of festive liturgy we’ve just finished. Pesach
is full of words: the Haggadah, Hallel, Torah readings every day, the
counting of the Omer which begins on the second night. Pesach is a
holiday of gratitude for past blessings and great hope for the future-
as one famous rabbi described it, on Pesach we fully experience the
joy and rightness of life, under the care of a loving God. Life may
have been hard, even unbearable, at times, but Pesach is all about
strengthening our faith in the goodness of life and the possibility
of renewal.

Well. . . then there is the rest of the story. The beginning of
Shemini reminds us in stark terms that sometimes life isn’t so nice
and good- rather than songs of praise, there is the image of
Aharon’s silence in the face of tragedy, death, and grief. Life is
bountifully good, and inexplicably tragic- both are true, and neither
cancels out the other. There are times in life when our response is
Hallel, [the Psalms of celebration sung on Jewish holidays] and there
are realities which would mock any response but silence.

So how do we find the middle path between the outlook of Pesach and
the tragedy of Shemini? As it happens, the Jewish calendar itself
shows the way. Starting on the second night of Pesach, we count
the “omer” for 49 days, until the holiday of Shavuot. In Biblical
times, the “omer” was a sheaf of grain, and there is a Torah
commandment to count the days between the early spring holiday
(Pesach) and the holiday of the first fruits of summer (Shavuot.)
Later on in Jewish history, the counting of the omer became a solemn
time of preparation for the spiritual meaning of Shavuot, which is to
recall the giving of the Torah.

Rabbi Soloveitchik reminds us that counting anything in a series
involves awareness of the past, the present, and the future
simultaneously. In order to count the omer, we have to be aware of
what day it was yesterday, and what day it will be tomorrow- but the
mitzvah is to become aware of the meaning of this particular day.
Counting the omer could be understood as a spiritual exercise of
keeping the past and the future in their proper perspective- we
cannot change the past, and we cannot be sure of the future, but we
can become deeply aware of the meaning of this day, this moment, this
unique link between yesterday and tomorrow.

We cannot always count on life being like a great redemption, nor can
we be sure when the future redemption will come- but neither is it
ordained that we must we be paralyzed by life’s tragedies. There is
yesterday’s omer, and there is tomorrow’s, but the commandment is to
count this day, and no other. By focusing on this day’s count- that
is, its unique existence- we can keep our souls in balance even when
we feel burned by “strange fire.” We remember the past, and look to
the future, but we live in this day, with all its infinite

Shabbat Shalom,


For more about the counting of the omer, click here, and see
associated links:

For the text of the parsha and haftarah:

For a summary of Shemini and additional commentaries:

This week’s commentary was partially informed by an essay on the omer
by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, found in a book of transcribed lectures
on various Pesach themes:

Finally, for those who haven’t seen it, a very special announcement
from your humble cyber-commentator:

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