What Counts

We are at the time of the counting the Omer, in case it slipped your mind. I know. You’re scratching your head and wondering what this is all about. Here’s the text citation: “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach when an omer [approximately 9 cups] of grain is to be brought as an offering [to the cohanim in the Jerusalem Temple], 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) [It’s also the beginning of the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates when we received the Torah].”
You may ask, “Why does God ask the Israelites for a measure of grain for 50 consecutive days?” The answer, a wise and enduring answer as we ponder the Torah, is “We just don’t know.” Perhaps it was a sign that the spring grain was that significant. God wanted to declare its centrality by featuring it so prevalently.
Originally there wasn’t even a link between the Omer offering with Passover or Shavuot other than proximity on the calendar. But the rabbis are always looking for connections, always trying to link events to form one meta storyline. Counting the Omer has become a primary nexus point between Passover and Shavuot.
There is another question I have, one that pushes Jewish practice – mine individually, and ours, collectively – is, “Why do we continue to acknowledge this ritual by counting up, every night, at the end of services?” This question leads us to a deeply existential confrontation. If after the year 70CE, there is no more temple where sacrifices were once offered up, why is it so important to acknowledge the Omer tradition? In fact, why bother?
I know asking, “Why bother?” is a slippery slope when it comes to examining ritual practices. But this one is so arcane that it cannot be ignored.
The Reform movement was born when people began questioning ritual observance, wondering why certain practices were required. They began asking why men and women couldn’t sit together. They asked why to keep kosher. They wanted to know why they couldn’t have beautiful instrumental music in their synagogues. They wanted to know why being Jewish felt restrictive and constrictive.
To be a Jew is to inherit a long and complicated tradition, filled with astonishing twists and turns, monumental change, push back and blowback. The archetypal traditional Jew, Tevye, sings about tradition and stalwartly stands strong with it. But even Tevye, buffeted by change and loss, wonders what the true price is to hold onto a tradition that no longer fits, no longer makes sense.
Some may consider it sad, or even heretical, to relegate long practiced ritual to the dust heap of history. But if it no longer serves its purpose, if it becomes a mindless, rote procedure, then why bother? There is so much to celebrate in our tradition. There are so many ways that being Jewish challenges us to step up and be truly present. There are so many ways to access the best of our Judaism. Wouldn’t this be the right time to find new paths to God and to community?  Instead of worrying about remembering to count the Omer, doesn’t it make more sense to remember to bring to the temple some non-perishable offering to the Jewish food bank, Family Table?
For our tradition to be worth something, it has to mean something.

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