Pesach: Counting and Seeing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

This weekend we don’t read a regular weekly Torah portion, because
Shabbat is the seventh day of Pesach, which is Yom Tov (a Biblical
holiday) and Sunday is the eighth day, the extra day observed by
traditional communities in the Diaspora. On Sunday, the reading
includes D’varim/ Deuteronomy 16, which reviews the “Shalosh Regalim”
[three pilgrimage festivals]: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot in the fall.
Between Pesach and Shavuot [the holiday of “weeks” at the beginning of
the summer], we learn about counting the omer:

“You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when
the sickle is first put to the standing grain. ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy
16:9)

The mitzvah of counting the omer is also found in Vayikra/ Leviticus
23, with a bit more detail given. The basic idea is the connection
between the beginning of the season for growing grain and the earliest
harvest in the Land of Israel. Pesach is a holiday that marks the
first growing things of spring and Shavuot is the holiday of the
“first fruits” of summer. The omer itself was a sheaf of new grain
brought to the ancient Temple on the second day of Passover; the
commandment to count until Shavuot links the two holidays as part of a
cycle of thanks for the blessings of the land.

In practical terms, you will note that the verse above talks about
counting “weeks,” while the verse in Vayikra speaks of counting both
days and weeks. Thus, when we count the omer, after the first week, we
mention both the number of days and the number of weeks. Each night we
count the new day (the new day beginning at sundown) by saying the
bracha [blessing] and the appropriate number of days and weeks. If we
forgot at night, we do count the next day without a blessing, and if
we forgot a whole day or more, we pick up again without any blessing
at all- this has to do with thinking of the complete counting period
as a mitzvah.

Early in post-Biblical Jewish history, the omer became a sad period,
with customs associated more with mourning than springtime, but
personally, I prefer to see the omer as orienting us towards two
important truths:

1) The natural world around us is in a constant state of change,
growth and renewal. Paying attention to each day of springtime attunes
us to the daily miracles of creation and the cycles of birth, growth,
harvest and renewal in nature.

2) Pesach is called “zman herutenu,” or “the time of our freedom,”
while Shavuot, 7 weeks later, is the holiday of “matan Torah,” or
giving of the Torah. To me, the omer reminds that our freedom must
have a purpose in order to be meaningful. We were not taken out of
Egypt only to be free from oppression, but to serve God by enacting
compassion and justice in the world. Counting our days from Exodus to
Sinai reminds us to use our freedom, every day, not for trivial
things, but for creating the society intended by the highest ideals of
Torah.

One can also find in books and on the internet detailed calendars for
doing particular exercises of introspection and contemplation each day
of the omer, but we’ll leave those for another day.

The mitzvah of counting the omer seems rather archaic in a 24/7 world
of linked internet calendars and constant electronic communication,
but perhaps that’s the point. We are all creatures of the Earth,
living with nature, linked to its cycles, which move on a different
schedule than email and text messages. Counting the omer makes us
aware of time in a deeper way, orients us towards the small beauties
of life, asks us to let the season unfold over days and weeks and
months until we are ready for the fullness of summer.

Counting the omer demands that we take just a few moments a day to ask
ourselves: for what have I used these precious days and weeks? What I
have learned, what have I seen, what have I taken in and what have I
given back?

Seen this way, the mitzvah of counting the omer is not only about
what’s growing in the barley fields, but what’s growing in the human
spirit.

A happy conclusion of Pesach to all,

RNJL

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