Counting On It

One of the more confusing elements of the Jewish tradition is something called the counting of the omer. In the Book of Leviticus (23:10-11), it is commanded that the Israelites bring a sheaf or omer of the first harvest of their barley to the priest on the second day of Passover. The priest would then wave the barley offering before God – whatever that looked like – to symbolize the start of the harvest season.

This barley offering was part of the larger agricultural cycle in ancient Israel based on the lunar calendar. The barley harvest was the first of the crops in the year, marking the beginning of the agricultural cycle. The offering of the first fruits fifty days later was a way of acknowledging God’s role in the harvest and thanking God for the abundance of the land. The practice of bringing an omer of barley and then the first fruits as offerings continued until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Technically, according to the Torah, we count the days between the first grain offering of the year and the new meal offering given at the peak of the harvest season, 50 days later. The whole thing is simply a way to count down the harvest season. But over the years, as Shavuot morphed from a harvest festival to the holiday celebrating the day the Jews received the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai, Jewish philosophers and commentators seized this calendrical link between Passover and Shavuot to push for a more robust religious underpinning.

For we who are not traditionally observant, this counting of the omer is an atavistic relic, a practice we are only barely aware of and in which we are utterly disinterested. It happens. Ritual can only inspire us when it connects us to a more profound truth about our life and how our Judaism defines it.

Lighting Hanukkah candles is a ritual that reminds us of the struggle between light and dark. Saying the kaddish opens our sense of loss and appreciation for those who have died. Coming to temple on the High Holy Days engages us in the joy of community and the sea of time that forever flows forward. Yom Kippur fasting reminds us of our mortality and our capacity to reflect on the deeper parts of our lives.

I could go on and on, bringing up rituals that continue to resonate within us. The fact is that there are also many, like counting the omer, which no longer has credible valence. As post-modern Reform Jews, we are not commanded to do anything because God says so. We do it because we are engaged in making meaning. We define our existence through the lens of Judaism. We are the inheritors of an ancient tradition that we renew as we evolve. Keeping kosher does not convey meaning for most of us, but supporting sustainable agriculture as a Jewish value does make a real impact.

Living as a Jew in a universe where God does not command us to follow 613 mitzvot requires us to decide the boundaries and the obligations of our faith and practice. It’s about constructing a spiritual life on a scaffolding we build together. This is the gift we hand down from one generation to the next: the boldness to think about our Jewishness in real-time, to do something not because someone said so but because it is meaningful and engaging, and life-affirming.

Counting the omer meant something to our ancestors and continues to mean something to traditional Jews today. But it does not speak to me today – at all. That isn’t sad. It’s not a sign of the slow erosion of Judaism. It speaks to how we evolve, define, and redefine the values and practices that most enhance our lives. Now that’s something to celebrate. That’s something to count on.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: