Come Tuesday night, we begin to count our days – 49 days, to be exact, seven complete weeks – as we vicariously journey from Egypt to Sinai, from the slavery of Egypt to our birth as God’s holy nation.
Each night, we add another day, and remind ourselves, as well, of the days that have passed. “Today is the 15th day of the Omer, which is two weeks and one day of the Omer.”
One day added to another and then another, each day taking one step closer to the moment when God reveals to us our sacred mission as His kingdom of priests. We are His emissaries to the world. It is our task to teach the world by example how God wants all His children to behave toward each other and toward all of creation.
Our enslavement was meant to prepare us for that mission. As we count the days, we look forward to that mission. Yet we must never forget what it feels like to be the lowest of the low, even as we become the agents of the Most High.
“Counting Sefirah,” however, has become ritualized to the point of becoming trivialized, to be rushed through at the end of evening prayers. The counting itself is not the issue, however, and never was the point. It is the reason for the counting that must concern us if the ritual is to serve its purpose.
Instead of just counting, why not take 10 more minutes and study one of the many versions of the 613 commandments supposedly found in the Torah? (Not everyone agrees on what makes up the 613.) In doing so, keep in mind that each commandment is actually a chapter heading for different areas of the Law.
Of particular relevance are those commandments that focus on how we relate to the people around us, and the responsibilities we have to the rest of creation – animal, vegetable, mineral – down to the very air we breathe. Included among these are laws regarding how we treat those near and dear; how we treat the neighbor and the stranger; how we conduct our business; how we treat those we employ. There are the laws of torts and of property rights; there are laws protecting individual rights, including the right to privacy.
Study a handful each night. Read the law and then try to apply it to life in the 21st century.
Using the version of the list assembled by Maimonides, for example, Number 270 prohibits us from moving the boundary markers of our neighbors. What relevance does that have to us today? Is it just a commandment about actual, physical boundary markers, or is there a much wider scope to this law? (Spoiler alert: There is a much wider scope, including especially laws against unfair competition.)
Take one night just to contemplate Number 35, not to put a stumbling block before the blind? What is a “stumbling block” and who is referred to as “the blind”? Make a list – and then consider that list carefully. On another night, consider Number 34, not to insult the deaf. How does this commandment relate to the various laws we have regarding bad speech – and why?
What do Numbers 159 (not to offer an animal and its young on the same day), or 161 (chasing away the mother bird from the nest before taking its eggs) have to do with the rights of animals and our responsibilities to them? For that matter, what does Number 163 (not to boil a calf in its mother’s milk) tell us about such matters?
The counting itself is empty ritual, and not the point at all. Sefirah is not an exercise in counting from one to 49. With each day, we figuratively edge farther away from slavery and move ever closer to revelation, and we need to understand the reason for both. That is why we count.
When we reach 49, we need to stop counting our days and start making our days count. We need to put into practice all we have learned in those days. Shavuot, Day 50, marks the end of the Exodus saga. We stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. We are no longer pharaoh’s slaves; we are God’s kingdom of priests and holy nation.
We have a job to do.
If culling through one or other of the lists of 613 commandments is too daunting, here is another suggestion. On the Shabbat after Pesach, we will read the Torah portion known as K’doshim. It begins with Leviticus 19. There are 35 verses in that chapter, and in a very real sense those verses comprise a summary of the job description for Israel.
Clear out any notion that the Torah is stuck in time and place. Take each verse apart, dissect each phrase, and try to sense what is really being said and how that applies to our lives today.
Verse 3, for example, commands us to “each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths.” Is there a general significance in mother being mentioned before father here (as opposed to the “honor your father and your mother” commandment of Exodus 20:12)? Is there a relevance in that to how lives are lived today? In what ways did revering parents and observing Shabbat relate to each other then, and how do they relate now?
This year, let us all make the counting count.