“Blessed are you, God, our God, King of the world, who has commanded us to count the Omer. Today is the 25th day of the Omer, which are 3 weeks and 4 days of the Omer.”
The seasons in Israel seemed to change on a dime lately. After pleasant weather where it was warm enough during the day for short sleeves and nippy enough at night to warrant a thin sweater, we have entered full force into summer. We are in the period of time called the Omer – a 49 day period between Passover and Shavuot. During this season, every day counts – literally. We count every day how many days have passed from Passover, keeping mindful that we are counting up to Shavuot, which is the 50th day. Time is not allowed to pass mindlessly from week to week. Why is this time period so important that we count it?
There are 2 holiday lists in the Torah: Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16. The Leviticus list is the more complete, listing not only the 3 pilgrimage festivals – Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot – but also the High holidays in Tishrei. In this list, the period of the counting of the Omer lasts for 7 verses (Leviticus 23:10-16), while Yom Kippur only takes up 6 verses (Leviticus 23:27-32). In the Deuteronomy list, the High holidays are not mentioned at all as this passage focuses on the pilgrimage festivals, but the counting of the Omer warrants a verse of its own (Deuteronomy 16:9). Counting of the verses is useful as a metric to show the importance of this period.
The description of holidays in Leviticus is a nuts-and-bolts description. “On such-and-such day you will celebrate the holiday and bring these offerings.” During the Omer, certain sacrifices were brought in the Temple related to the harvesting of grain, which is the first crop to be harvested in the Spring. Here, in the Negev, the harvesting of grain is well underway and many fields are already bare of their winter crop.
But in Deuteronomy, we get narrative along with a few select rules. During the Spring holiday (including both the month of Aviv, Passover, Matzah) we are admonished to remember the Exodus from Egypt as a nighttime escape. We eat unleavened bread because it is the bread of distress. We are reminded that we left Egypt in a hurry. Remember the day you left Egypt. Remember the trepidation, the uncertainty. It’s a time period full of worry, not of joy.
We count seven weeks and then gather to celebrate Shavuot, the holiday of first fruits. Here, the Biblical text tells us, “Rejoice with your son and daughter, your slaves, the Levite, and the outsider, the widow and the orphan among you.” We are also admonished to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. But that’s just it – we WERE slaves. Now, we are joyful and have the responsibility of spreading happiness to those who are landless, even on this most agriculturally grounded holiday.
The Omer period of uncertainty, when the turbulent weather determines whether your crops will flourish or wither, mirrors the uncertainty of leaving Egypt. Would we grow into a people or perish in the desert?
I feel the uncertainty especially this year, when the plague of COVID shows signs of dissipating and returning us to “regular” life. Is this really the upturn in our struggle with COVID? Will the vaccines work and leave our society safer? Personally, I feel intensely the uncertainty of the coming summer. Will the summer bring tourists or not? Will the trauma of losing my livelihood over the last year be replaced by the joy of doing what I love?
I count the days, and despite the blasting heat of the last week, I’m hopeful for my crop, not just for myself, but in order to share the blessings with those who will, God willing, come to Israel seeking joy.