Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

Omer table, depicting the number of days in th...
Omer table, depicting the number of days in the omer (top) and its equivalence in number of weeks (middle) and days (bottom)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why count the Omer?

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.  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?

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Counting the Omer

A Polish abacus (liczydło)

I have a confession to make:  I have never made it all the way through counting the Omer at the proper time, Passover to Shavuot.  This year I’m going to do it (she says, feeling a little like Charlie Brown facing Lucy and the football one more time).

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!

#BlogExodus: The Jewish Future

Passover Seder 013

I will see the Jewish future tonight,

around a seder table:

children, young people, and adults

with mikveh water still behind the ears,

telling the story to the fogies, the regulars.

They will be shy at first

because there are Professionals at the table

but if we play it right

they will seize the story from our hands.

They will cast it, laughing,

beyond our reach, and we will pretend

that we don’t know what Judaism is coming to.

Secretly we will gloat

because the stories will not stop here.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  My sincere thanks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer,  the imabima,  for instigating and publicizing this effort.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate these blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus
.

Do You Ask Enough Questions?

“This is probably a stupid question…”

That line prefaces a good half of the question asked in my Intro classes. Students say it and pause, looking at me for the go-ahead, and then after I nod reassurance, they ask.  It often precedes a really good question, either something basic that should be answered in the class, or my favorite kind of question, something that opens up a good discussion.

I think I understand it. Nobody wants to look stupid, but if you’re the first to say it, it lowers the risk. It also generally gets reassurance from a teacher, and most of us like to be reassured and told that something we’re doing in class is good. And granted, Judaism is intimidating to people who perceive themselves as outsiders or ignorant.

One way I reassure students is to tell them that Jews ask questions. It’s what we do, whether we are the most sophisticated Talmudist or the most rebellious fourteen year old.  We celebrate questions, and put them at the center of the Passover seder, one of the holiest events in our year. The writers of the Haggadah were so concerned that we ask questions that they put four (or is it really one?) of them into the text, to model the behavior of questioning.

One good question to ask ourselves is, am I asking enough questions?

HOW ARE YOU?  is a question we ask, and generally it is assumed to be the social equivalent of white noise. But how often do we ask it again, with real concern?

WHAT CAN I DO?  is a good question to ask myself when I see something wrong happening before my eyes. Am I accepting something I should not accept?  One of the big problems connected with bullying is that too few people question hurtful behavior. We can ask that question to another person, too:  what kind of help do you want from me?

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?  is a fine question to ask when someone brings you information you do not need (e.g. gossip).  Listening to information about others that we do not need to know is lashon harah [evil speech] just as much as being the informant.

WHAT ASSUMPTIONS AM I MAKING?  Am I asking myself questions about the assumptions I make?  Why do I assume that one person walking towards me on the sidewalk is more of a threat than the other people?  Is an article of clothing or a tattoo or a way of dressing a reason to be suspicious in this situation?

There are also the grand three questions for editing out improper speech:  IS IT TRUE?  IS IT KIND? IS IT NECESSARY?

And then there is the grand old question of activists everywhere:  DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?

What questions would you like people to ask more often?  What questions do you not ask often enough?

Is there any new question you plan to ask at your Seder this year?

 

 

#BlogExodus: In the Midst of Chaos

NO CHAOS
NO CHAOS (Photo credit: alles-schlumpf)

Plagues.

I’ve heard many interesting drashot on the plagues, but to me the unifying factor of all plagues is that they are chaotic.  In the Creation narrative, the world is tohu vavohu, “formless and void,” some translations say, but fundamentally, chaos.  God hovers over it all, and speaks, and by speaking, separates dark from light, one thing from another, until the world is organized and peaceful.

Now, in Exodus 8 and 9, here come the plagues:  water turns to blood, frogs swarm out of the Nile, then die and stink.  The dust that is everywhere turns to lice, tormenting man and beast, followed by flies, which bite and swarm and carry filth everywhere.  Then disease:  first the cattle begin to die of anthrax and hoof-and-mouth disease, and their meat and milk are no longer good, then human beings are struck with boils that erupt everywhere on their skin.  The sky goes crazy, raining hailstones that cut the crops to shreds, and locusts gobble up everything that’s left.  Then the sun and moon fail, and the chaos seems complete:  all is dark, itchy, sticky, dis-eased, and there is nothing decent to eat or drink. And then the human promise of a future is erased:  firstborn children die.  Tohu vavohu:  Creation is unmade and all is chaos.

I read those passages in Exodus 8 and 9, and I think of all the suffering people and animals. Pharaoh and the Hebrew God have their confrontation, and I am angry at both of them.  They are like politicians talking about eggs and omelettes.  “You have to break a few eggs, etc.”  — NO.  I understand that I am supposed to root for God, and cheer, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

In a bad year, on a bad news day, we can feel the chaos all around.  Two days ago a crazy man shot and killed seven people at a little college in the city of Oakland.  I’ve been involved in a conversation on my local Patch.com site (San Leandro) about the fact that little San Leandro seems to be in the midst of a plague of violent crime that has become so commonplace it doesn’t even make the news.  People are angry.  We feel helpless.  We feel like Egyptians.

What are we to do?  I keep thinking of the line from the Mishnah:  In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.  (Pirkei Avot 2:6)  In the midst of the mess, whoever made it, we have only our humanity, our ability to connect to other suffering beings.

So let’s reach out.  Let’s talk.  Let’s touch.  Let’s quit fantasizing about how great the world would be without plagues and instead, reach across the mess to one another.  I don’t know how else we can navigate, in a time of plague.  We have the example of God in Creation:  the power of words.

Somewhere in there, we seek holiness.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.


The Miracle of Parsley

This is a curly leaved parsley plant (the comm...
Petroselinum hortense (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“That stuff has to go visit the devil nine times before it comes up,” grumbled Mrs. Smith.  She pointed to a row of plants in her herb garden, or rather, a row that had been marked as seeded.

“What is it?” I asked, thinking it must be something awful.  Henbane, hemlock, foxglove: one of those plants that can knock you dead, maybe.

“Parsley,” she said, “It’s too valuable not to plant, but it is a slow one.  I planted new this year, and it’s taking it’s own sweet time.”

I had that conversation thirty years ago, one summer when I was living in the Cumberland Mountains, a spur of the Appalachians. Mrs. Smith was a herbalist who had learned her art from her grandmother, back when there were no doctors in that part of the mountains.  She had strong opinions about many plants, but parsley‘s devil-connection made it instantly memorable.  (I’m pretty sure she meant it only as a sort of verbal garnish — pretty sure.)  Certainly I could never again see Petroselinum hortense without remembering Mrs. Smith and her garden.

It’s true that parsley is slow to germinate.  It is slow, and sometimes doesn’t come up at all.  However, once you plant it, it’s difficult to get rid of it, because it has a long tough tap root that goes deep into the soil.  While it is officially a biennial, in the mild climate where I live, once you have it, you have it.  If you don’t want it, tough.  It will just keep coming back, so you might as well pick some and eat it.

Besides being pretty and green, it’s highly nutritious:  high in vitamin K, vitamin C and flavonoids.  It’s also a source of iron, vitamin A, and folate.  Long before the Greeks began using it as a food, they used it for medicine.  It lowers blood pressure and has a chemical in it called apigenin, which inhibits the growth of tumors.   Eventually, though, someone discovered that it was pretty tasty, too, and the result is a panoply of Mediterranean dishes, including my favorite, tabouleh.

Which brings us back to the dinner table, and the seder plate.  I know that we include parsley as karpas, greens, but it is so much more than just green!  Its roots are deep.  It takes nutrients from the soil, and builds life-giving, life-preserving compounds.  Give it a warm patch of dirt and some water, and it will feed you generously.  Some varieties are quite bitter to the taste, and some are mild.  Dry it out, and it will still flavor food.

It is a stubborn little plant, not unlike a certain stiff-necked people.  This Friday night, when I sit at the seder table, and dip my bit of parsley into the bowl of tears, I will remember Mrs. Smith and her aggravation with the blessing that is parsley.

 

#BlogExodus: Springtime & Memory

Tomb of Joseph at Shechem
Tomb of Joseph at Shechem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land” wrote that brilliant old anti-Semite, T.S. Eliot, and I believe him. Spring is often spoken of as the season of blooming and rebirth, but for me it will always be tinged with loss.

I lost my beautiful grandmother, Mary Fulghum Menefee, on April 17, 1974, and the sights and smells of springtime are hard to take some years. I particularly hate the smell of Easter lilies, because after she died everyone we knew brought some to the house. I remember the white dogwood trees that she planted by the driveway, laced with blossoms, and it just seemed so wrong that anything would bloom after she was dead.

Years have passed and her absence has become a presence of its own in my heart. I doubt that she would have approved, in life, of my becoming Jewish, but many of the impulses that led me to Judaism were learned (or inherited?) from her. She encouraged my questioning mind, my love of scholarship, and my curiosity about the world. She told me a few days before her death that she’d been secretly voting Democratic for years. “Never tell your husband how you vote, it’s a secret ballot and none of his darn business,” she counseled me. Prudent words, coming from a woman in a family where everyone was very noisy about their conservative politics.

After my grandfather’s death, years later, I learned that she was a battered wife and had hidden it from all of us. She longed to get away but she could not, not in that time, not in that place. My grandmother never left Tennessee; twelve years after her death, I drove away and in many ways, never looked back.

I carry her along with me wherever I go. That, too, is very Jewish:  we remember the dead and bring them along with us. These days we do it in memory, by keeping yahrtzeits and attending yizkor services. But in that first Exodus, we are told that Moses actually carried a box with the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19) to fulfill Joseph’s prophecy and request in Genesis 50:25: “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.'”  Indeed, after many years of travel, Joshua finally laid Joseph’s bones to rest in Shechem (Joshua 24:32.)

Beyond mourning, it is important to honor the memory of family by telling stories about them. Passover seders are a wonderful time for that, a time when children are gathered around the table with adults, when memory  can flow. Was there a passage from an Egypt, a tight spot, in your family’s past?  Was there a beloved grandmother or a scholarly  uncle?  Are there funny stories, or sad stories, or stories with missing pieces that can be shared?

This Passover, tell the Exodus story, all the Exodus stories. Remember those who left Egypt, and those who could not.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.