My family had been enthusiastically counting down the days and weeks until Passover, excited about the opportunity to finally be together with family and friends for a holiday we love. Instead, we spent the last week and a half counting down the days until our youngest daughter, Rebecca, could come out of quarantine, after she contracted COVID some days before the start of Passover. Not only did the poor thing have to remain isolated in a room in our house for ten days, but our family’s entire Passover plan had to change as a result of this darn virus. Suddenly, we weren’t able to go to my in-laws and be with family and friends. My mother was unable to come to Los Angeles to spend her first holiday with us since my step-father’s death. Plans to spend time with my younger two daughters up in the Bay Area after driving my mom back home were derailed. For the first time in two years, we had so much hope for normalcy, and in a flash it was gone. Of course, the good news is that my daughter is fine now and amazingly, none of the rest of us came down with COVID, but it was a challenging time that reminded me that this pandemic can still play with our lives in significant ways.
Julia and I are optimistic by nature, so even with these recent set-backs, we had already begun talking to our girls about upcoming opportunities for adventures and time with family. My middle daughter, Kayla, is counting down the days to her 6th grade Brawerman Elementary class trip to Israel. My oldest, Ella, is counting down the days until she can return to her beloved summer camp, and our youngest, Rebecca, can’t wait for her very first sleepaway camp experience. As a family, we’re counting down the days until we go on the WBT B’nei Mitzvah Israel trip this summer that I’m co-leading with Cathy Gordon, our Head of Religious School.
Our Jewish tradition also requires us to be counting right now, in a tradition called the ‘Counting of the Omer’ which lasts for 49 days. According to a passage from the book of Leviticus, beginning on the second night of Passover, Jews are supposed to count each day as it passes for a total of seven complete weeks, until the holiday of Shavuot. ‘Omer’, refers to the sheaf, or bundle, of barley grain that was used to bake an unleavened offering on the second day of Passover in the ancient world. On Shavuot, another offering was brought to the Temple - two loaves of bread baked with the finest new wheat. The rabbis of old elevated this period to what it is today – a sustained period of reflection and preparation for the receiving of the Torah, the celebration associated with Shavuot. And so, to observe the Counting of the Omer, on each night, we literally count each day from Passover to Shavuot, saying a blessing that in essence states something like, “Today is seventeen days of the Omer, which are two weeks and three days of the Omer.” Tonight, as we enter Shabbat, is day seven of the Omer.
The kabbalists, or Jewish mystics, associated each of the 49 days with Godly characteristics – chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (strength), tiferet (harmony), netzach (eternity), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (God’s presence on earth). Each day represents a combination of two of these characteristics, meant to guide us to reflect and improve ourselves in various ways throughout the seven weeks. It’s like one of those exercise schedules that works various muscle groups each day and by the time you finish the course, you have significantly strengthened your entire body.
We usually count down towards an event or experience, but in the case of the Omer, we count up. Why? Instead of waiting for each day to pass, the counting of the Omer reminds us that the right direction to take is not down, but upward – higher and higher with our goals, our hope, and our potential for improvement. We are supposed to arrive at the holiday of Shavuot and not only ritually ‘receive’ the Torah, but also ready to embark on the next stage of our own journey through the desert, strengthened and hopeful that with the work we’ve done on ourselves, we can journey through this wilderness with purpose and poise.
We still have six weeks left of the Omer. We will celebrate Shavuot together on the evening of Saturday, June 4 - I hope you’ll join us! Mark your calendar, set a goal or two for yourself, and instead of counting down between now and June 4, count up. “Today is Day One of me doing X or working on Y.” Each day, count up. And believe me, when you reach that goal and say, “This is Day 42 of doing X or working on Y”, it’s going to feel like you are standing at the top of Mt. Sinai and receiving your very own Torah.
One more important note – One of the hardest things to count is the time we have had to live without a loved one by our side. Yizkor is a special memorial service that occurs four times a year and it gives us the space and time to honor and reflect on the people who are no longer alive, but whose memories flood our hearts and minds on a regular basis. Please join us for Yizkor services tomorrow morning, Saturday, April 23 at 10am at either our Glazer or University campus. In addition to Shabbat morning services and b’nei mitzvah celebrations, there will be a special time set aside during the service for Yizkor and the reading of names.