“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.
This verse from the Torah portion we read this week- Emor- outlines the practice of counting the days from Passover to the next festival, called Shavuot (meaning “weeks” and referring to the exactly seven weeks between the two holidays). Actually, the Torah doesn’t explicitly mention that the festival celebrated seven weeks after Passover is called “Shavuot.” Instead, it is a called “Chag Ha-Katzir” (the harvest festival) and “Chag Ha-Bikurim” (the festival of the first fruits). How it came to be called Shavuot, and associated with God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai and the Ten Commandments, is another story. But the idea of counting 49 days/7 weeks from Passover to Shavuot is unmistakably found in the Torah and provides some insight into our own lives.
The counting of the 49 days/7 weeks is itself a Jewish ritual known as “counting the omer” (the term “omer” comes from the grain offering mentioned in the verse above). Observant Jews count scrupulously, making an effort not to miss even one day of the sequence, since the mitzvah is to count all the days from the first to the last. The mitzvah is performed after dark beginning with the night of the second Seder and ending on the night before Shavuot. It is customary not to announce the number of the next day in the sequence until actually performing the ritual, since doing so is considered to “pre-empt” the counting. A blessing is recited and then the day of the Omer sequence is recited according to a liturgical formula. Of course, there are smartphone apps that can be downloaded for free that remind someone what day is to be counted, along with meditations and prayers to be recited.
What insight can we gain from counting the days from Passover to Shavuot? Here are three takeaways:
- Each day matters. That each day of our lives matters, that each new day represents the potential for each of us to do something good and helpful, to experience some measure of growth, to find some measure of fulfillment and joy, is conventional wisdom. But it’s nice to have a period of time specifically focused on the idea that each day counts.
- Counting emphasizes responsibility. Passover is about redemption from oppression and Shavuot is about agreeing to be governed by communal laws and norms. The freedom won on Passover finds its greatest fulfillment when we express our ultimate purpose and power as human beings to change the world for the better. As a people, we embrace that challenge collectively and affirm our purpose on Shavuot. Counting the days from Passover to Shavuot underscores that freedom is valuable only if we use it constructively.
- Counting emphasizes personal growth. As we note that each day matters, we can also consider how we might grow with each new day. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the Kabbalists saw the counting of the omer as an opportunity to cleanse the soul:
“The forty-nine days, connecting the exodus from Egypt with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, are a time of preparation and growth – of leaving a world of slavery and getting ready to enter a world of personal, social and spiritual responsibility. The Jewish mystics attached special significance to this period of the year as one in which the various facets of the soul were cleansed, one by one.”
As each day of the omer is counted, ask yourself how you can and wish to grow personally, socially, spiritually. What aspects of your life need attention and change? Pick one area of your life on which to concentrate each week of the seven weeks of counting. Meditate on that part of your life, or start a journal that express your feelings and hopes. In that way the counting of the omer can be transformed from an obscure and obsolete ritual to one that is relevant and powerful.
By the way, today is the 26th day of the Omer, which is three weeks and five days into the counting!