We are now “counting the Omer,” the days from Passover to Shavuot. In case you’d like to know more about it, here are two posts from past years that should answer some of your questions, and perhaps raise more:
Two memoirs are out just recently from people I admire: Jeanne Córdova’s When We were Outlawsand Kate Bornstein’sA Queer and Pleasant Danger. I’ve had a chance to read Córdova’s book, but my e-copy of Bornstein’s book is still on its way through cyberspace to me. Both are stories about dangerous journeys, and it occurred to me that they are totally appropriate reading for Omer-time, since we are in that period of travel from Passover to Shavuot, from freedom to Torah. Just as Am Yisrael had to deal with Amalekites and their own demons, these two women have been through their own wildernesses, external and internal.
When We were Outlaws is about a short period in the 1970’s when lesbians began to see themselves as Lesbian Nation, but the Establishment, especially J.Edgar Hoover, saw them as another bunch of Commies, enemies of the state. (I say “them” because I didn’t come out until ’87.) Those were scary, heady times, when the radical Left in America was feeling its oats about the exit from Vietnam, but painfully aware of what had happened to the Black Panthers. Córdova was a leader in the lesbian community in Southern California during that time, and she talks about not only the external battles but the internal ones as well. She was (and is) both a lover and a fighter, and breathtakingly honest about it, to boot.
A Queer and Pleasant Danger is about another sort of journey. I met Kate Bornstein after she had stopped being Al and had become Kate, but before I became a Jew named Ruth. She was the first person to explain gender in a way that made sense to me. The binary division of the world into “us” and “them” had always seemed like a gross oversimplification of something much more interesting, but I never had words for it. Kate embodies it: she occupies her own township on the landscape of gender, and has spent much of the last twenty years as a kind and outrageous tour guide and den mother, writing and performing her art to communicate the truth of that landscape to the rest of us. I look forward to reading her memoir, as I have enjoyed her other books; I know I will learn something not only about her, but about myself, before I put it down.
I admire these two writers because they have followed the truth where it took them, and they have the guts to talk honestly about the sometimes messy adventures and mistakes along the way. It’s one of the qualities I love about Jewish holy books, that they include some of the unholiest episodes imaginable, letting us know that all of life can become holy. It’s only when we are willing to really tell the truth that we can learn something worthwhile. It’s only when we can embrace the mess of being human, that we can allow ourselves to be embraced by God.
It’s the 20th day of the Omer and I am still counting. Back at the beginning, I asked Why Count the Omer and listed some reasons I gleaned from reading. I hunted around on WordPress and other blogging sites, and found more wisdom about the Omer (also some great bloggers):
These are far from the only sources online with counting or thoughts on counting, but they offer a taste of the variety available. Jewish learning really IS bigger than the sea.
But back to counting: I’ve been meditating on the word “Count.” In Hebrew, “to count” is לספור, “lispor,” and the root is ס.פ.ר, samech, pey, resh. Hebrew roots connect entire families of words, in this case:
l’saper, to tell
sefirot, emanations (the ten attributes or emanations of God, according to Kabbalah)
There’s plenty to think about there. There are also the uses in English of “count”:
Counting the days.
Called to account. (That one doesn’t work in Hebrew, but it sure is evocative in English.)
Making the day count.
Can people count on me?
Does his opinion count?
Count up your points!
Let me recount the tale…
What am I counting this month, besides the days to the barley harvest? (I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen it growing.)
Am I making these days count?
What am I writing in the scroll of my life during these days between freedom and covenant?
If I was written in the Book of Life last High Holy Days, what am I doing about it now?
What am I doing to make the days count?
Whom I am not taking into account?
Can people count on me?
Upon whom or what can I count?
All excellent questions! What does “count” or “ס.פ.ר” bring up for you?
Pirkei Avot 1.1: Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.
The transmission of Torah is like a bucket brigade: starting with God on Sinai, the Torah has been handed down, hand to hand, from that day to this. We call this the sharsheret shel masoret, the chain of tradition.
Once, in the British Library in London, I saw a 9th century text of the Tanakh with the te’amim (cantillation marks – the musical notations) in it, and I was able to stand at the case where it was displayed and chant the text softly to myself. That codex was ancient — more than a thousand years old! — but I could read it just fine. That was the first time I really felt the weight of that chain of tradition. I could imagine the masorete who wrote that book teaching his student… and then the student teaching his student… down through the centuries until Cantor Lam taught Cantor Keys and Cantor Keys taught me.
The same is true of every d’var Torah — every word of Torah — that I know. Someone taught it to me. God willing, I will teach it to others.
A hundred years from now, I do not expect that many people, if any, will remember me. But I take great comfort and pride in the knowledge that the students of my students will still be learning Torah and teaching it to their children and their students. I may be just a link in the chain — but what a chain!
In my effort to get myself to do it properly and on time, I have asked this question and looked for answers. Here are some ideas about why we count the Omer.
(1). GOD SAID TO: “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).” In other words, God said to make sacrifices to mark these days. We don’t have the Temple anymore, so instead we count after dinner each night.
(2) IT CONNECTS PASSOVER TO SHAVUOT: Passover is a big holiday of celebration. We celebrate freedom, which is mostly a happy thing (no more slavery, yay!) By preserving the count of the Omer, even without the Temple, the rabbis are reminding us that the Passover is not truly complete until we commemorate the giving of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot. Freedom without responsibility is incomplete and unreal. By counting, we remind ourselves that the process is not yet finished.
(3) SELF IMPROVEMENT: In preparation to receive the Torah, we work to become better Jews. The Kabbalists point out that the Omer is counted for seven weeks of seven days, and they match them with the seven sefirot through which God interacts with the world. Each of the seven days within those weeks are matched with the sefirot, also, and those various permutations of Godliness provide an opportunity for study and self improvement. Another tradition is to read and study Pirkei Avot [the first chapter of the Mishnah, which consists mostly of advice on proper behavior and attitude] during this season.
(4) AN EXPRESSION OF ANTICIPATION: When we are excited about something, we count the days to that event. It is also true that when we behave a particular way, we cultivate the emotions and the thoughts that go with that behavior. When we count the Omer, we cultivate excitement about Torah in our lives.
(5) MINDFULNESS: This one is my own, as far as I know. I know that the reason I never make it through the omer is that I get distracted. It’s as if I have ADD of the soul. 49 days is a long time to do anything, especially something as small and easy to forget as an additional blessing after eating. This year I want to improve my attention span for Torah. I want to be mindful of Jewish time, and in the process, perhaps make better use of my time.
If you count the Omer, why do you do it? Do you know any additional reasons for counting?
The #BlogExodus project gave me an idea, though: I’m going to blog the Omer. Today I’m announcing my intent to do this thing. Last night I counted Day One of the Omer, but since it was the second day of Passover, I figured I’d wait to blog it until the yomtov [holy day] was over. With the next post, I’ll begin looking at Pirkei Avot, a rabbinic text that we traditionally study this time of year. Occasionally I may have something else on my mind but the point is, this year I will (1) say the blessing (2) count the day of the omer and (3) post something to this blog. If I have to choose, (1) and (2) will take precedence. I’m hoping that the commitment to do something public in connection with it will generate sufficient Jewish guilt or shame to get me there.
You see, rabbis struggle with observance too. For years I have struggled privately, but this year I am going to struggle in public, with an eye to improving my observance and maybe also to let others who struggle have some company. I try my best to observe the mitzvot, and sometimes I succeed. Other times I fall short. Then I try again.
Last night I counted at the community seder at Temple Sinai. Tonight I counted here at my home.
May this year the the year I finally manage to stay mindful enough to do it!