Counting Up

Feature

April 23, 2020

Counting Up

The period between Passover and Shavuot is called the Sefira. It refers to the practice of counting the Omer, an ancient Hebrew measure of grain, that was once offered up in the Temple.

The Book of Leviticus (23:15-16) commands: "And from the day on which you bring the offering . . . 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 Adonai…. On that same day you shall hold a celebration"

There is more than one explanation for this practice of counting the Omer. The first is that as part of an agricultural society, the Jews were counting the time between the first harvest of the barley crop and the last harvest which was wheat. Another explanation is that it marks the time between the day we left Egypt until the day we received the Torah on Mount Sinai.

According to tradition, the Omer is counted every evening after sundown, beginning on the second night of Seder. (Here’s more information if you’d like: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/blessing-for-counting-the-omer.)

The Kabbalists (Jewish mystics) saw the days of the Omer as an opportunity to move away from any spiritual impurities acquired in Egypt and work towards improving our character and behavior, moving closer to union with God. Each day focuses on a particular Divine trait, towards with we can direct our thoughts and deeds such as : lovingkindness, Justice, Balance, etc.

It is worth noting that in counting the days of the Sefira, we count up… not down. Up, in anticipation of the giving of the Torah, and up in recognition of our increasing spiritual awareness and refinement. Up for optimism and hope for what is yet to come.

The Jewish way of counting is not to count down towards an anticipated conclusion. Rather, it is about building upwards, reaching, and growing towards new heights. Hanukkah provides another such example as we add to the light each night by counting up rather than beginning with eight candles and gradually diminishing.

This year, as we shelter in place, I believe there is a helpful message in the practice of Sefirat ha’Omer, which lies in positivity and optimism. With the Omer, we know when it will end…on Shavuot. While we cannot know the day our confinement will be lifted, we can use these days for introspection, to work on ourselves: restrain our frustrations, increase our patience and compassion, recommit to acts of tzedakah, learn new skills and refine others etc. Whenever, our ‘new beginning’ comes, we can emerge more grateful, more discerning, and better equipped to build a just and caring world for ourselves and our children.

Rabbi Judith Beiner
Chaplain, JF&CS