Counting the COVID-19 Omer (8th May 2020) May 8, 2020 22:42:38 GMT
Post by Rabbi Neil on May 8, 2020 22:42:38 GMT
The Omer is the period between Pesach and Shavuot. 7 weeks of 7 days, which we count to prepare ourselves for the third of the Pilgrim Festivals. It is asked why we count up towards Shavuot and not count down – normally when we count towards something in anticipation, we count down – only five days left, four, three, two, one and then we’re there. The traditional response is either that we add to holiness (and thus for the same reason add to the Chanukah candles every day during that festival even though they’re remembering oil that is very slowly diminishing) or the answer given is that we’re building up towards Shavuot. When the people left Egypt, they only just deserved the Exodus, according to our tradition. Thus, they had to prepare themselves for receiving the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot. They had to improve, they had to step up, as it were, so we count upwards to mirror their spiritual journey.
Back in 2017, I worked with the Social Justice Director at the time to create a Social Justice Omer calendar. It was a really big piece of work but it assumed a normalcy of life that we just don’t have today, and I must admit that I didn’t have the energy this year to edit it. One year, I read a poem daily from Ya’el Chaikind, a member of our community, who had written a daily series of reflections for the Omer. A number of times over the last few years, I’ve used Rabbi Jill Hammer’s Omer Calendar of Biblical Women to study a different Biblical woman every day. During her Nefesh Shalom meditation sessions each week, Rabbi Jenny currently refers to the unique combination of sefirot – the Divine emanations of God as understood by the Kabbalists – to connect to differing aspects of Jewish spirituality. These are all absolutely wonderful, valid ways of taking a seven-week long count and turning it into something valuable and profound. But the truth is that this year, all I’ve done is count.
Next Monday evening until Tuesday evening is Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of the Omer. Lag B’Omer is traditionally a day of celebration, of bonfires, of cutting hair and of bows and arrows. A few years ago, some of the children in the community had their first hair-cut together onsite as a celebration of Lag B’Omer. It was a lovely event. This Lag B’Omer, Rabbi Jenny will be giving our kids’ hair a trim after the Creative Shacharit service on Tuesday morning. Other than that, though, my observance of the Omer this year has been extremely minimal. A few weeks into the Omer, I’ve given myself space to stop and think about why this is, which led to this sermon.
The answer, I believe, is that I’m just not up to climbing Mount Sinai right now. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very excited for Shavuot. We’re going to be studying Perek Shira, an extraordinary Jewish environmental text that gives voice to every differing element in creation from the birds to the trees to the ants to the clouds. But as excited as I am about that, I just can’t climb Mount Sinai right now. The Jewish people have always been a travelling people, a journeying people. From our inception, Avram journeyed forth in the Torah portion Lech L’cha. When the people finally settled in Egypt, bad things happened, so once again they had to journey forth into the wilderness. When they scouted out the land in the portion Shelach L’cha, they were so afraid of the settled place that they had to end up wandering in the Wilderness for another generation. Things were wonderful for them there but at least God remained with them throughout, whereas once they finally got into the land, God’s Presence grew further and further from the people, and they were eventually expelled from the land. Through return and exile, through millennia of wandering, the Jewish people have always travelled. But now, right now, we have nowhere to go. Some of us haven’t left our homes in days, some in weeks, some in months. What happens to a journeying people when even journeying outside the front door and into contact with others brings the risk of death? The answer, I think, is we wait, and we count.
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, describes the counting of the Omer. It says (Lev. 23:15), “You shall count for yourselves, from the morning of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete.” That’s it. No bonfires, no bows and arrows, no haircuts, no profound exploration of the combinations of sefirot, no period of semi-mourning, none of the omer customs that developed later – just count one day at a time. Do that, and you’ve fulfilled the mitzvah of the Omer. To be absolutely clear, I am not disparaging any of the omer customs that developed later and if you are observing any of them then chazak u’varukh – strength to you in the continuation of those customs. But if you’re not, I guess what I’m leading towards saying is, “It’s okay.” Moses climbed Sinai so that the people didn’t have to, the entire people couldn’t ascend. It just wasn’t possible for them. So, too, for many of us this year, it’s not possible, and that’s okay. The strength of community is in divergent belief and in divergent practice. Some will ascend Sinai, some just need to stop and breathe and just count the day and say, “That’s one more day that I got through. Today was a success because I reached its end and didn’t give in to the trials and tribulations of the world.” Sometimes, it’s okay just to count the day and see that as a mitzvah.
Later in our service when we count the Omer, I encourage you if you haven’t developed any particular Omer practice this year to not just see it as a meaningless count but, instead, as an opportunity for appreciation of today in and of itself. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of radical amazement – the wonder not just of the world around us but also of our ability to wonder at the world around us. It is amazing that we are able to count the Omer, connected as a community through the wonders of technology. It is amazing that we continue to support each other, teach each other, learn from each other, take care of each other, even when we can hardly physically journey anywhere. Instead of counting down to Shavuot, I count the days from Pesach – and even before – that we got through this crisis still connected in a loving community together. We can wonder at our resilience, we can be amazed by our community and by our continued varied observances of Jewish traditions especially through this time. We can count the start of a new day not because of its potential, not because of what it holds, not because of what we’ll do during it, but simply because it is. Because a new day is a wonderful thing, a blessing, just because life itself, as dark and challenging as it might become, is also a wonderful thing and a blessing.
So, this Shabbat, and every day during the Omer, and even during this entire social upheaval, let’s count the day we’re in simply because it has value and because we made it this far. Let’s be aware of the future to come, but not count down to the future but instead count today and make today count. And let us say, Amen.