Parashat Emor — counting confessions 

Parashat Emor — counting confessions 

Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson, Conservative

We are now in the process of counting. Then again, we are always in the process of counting.

Some of what I am currently counting: days till my daughter’s high school graduation; my mother’s hemoglobin in grams per microliter; 224 days by the time you read this, unless there is a breakthrough, that hostages have been in Gaza; $69,789 out of a goal of $72,000 raised so far by Rabbis & Friends for World Central Kitchen; and, of course, the Omer (days from the second night of Passover until Shavuot).

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, contains 124 verses, 1,614 words, 6,106 letters, and 56 mitzvot. It discusses seven holidays, including Shabbat, plus counting the Omer. But who’s counting?

I am sure that you have your own list of countables. The Jewish year is full of them, with instructions for the nine days before Tisha B’av, the seven Sabbaths of consolation, the 25 hours of Yom Kippur, and the eight nights of Chanukah — to name a few. Maybe you are also counting days until a wedding or months since you were declared cancer-free. Were you recently counted as the 10th for a minyan? May you live to 120 — and count each day as blessed!

The word “count” has four main meanings: to number or determine the number of, to take into account, to include, and to matter. We count things because they count.

One of the rules for counting the Omer is that you must do so each evening for 49 nights. If you forget, you can count the following morning, without reciting a blessing. If you miss evening and morning, however, then, traditionally, you no longer say the blessing for any subsequent day. A technical explanation for this is that while most rabbis treat each day’s counting as a separate mitzvah, some regard all seven weeks as a single block, based on the phrase in Emor “seven complete weeks” (Lev. 23:15). Omitting the blessing after a lapse represents a compromise with the minority position.

Canceling the blessing can also be understood as a natural, though seemingly harsh, consequence. Because you forgot twice, you forgo the privilege of declaring counting to be a mitzvah. If the Omer didn’t count enough for you to remember to count it, then don’t recite the blessing that casts the numbering of each day as a sacred duty.

Counting is so simple. We teach toddlers to do it. Just add one! How hard can that be? But too often and too blithely, we forget or override an intention to take careful account. Sometimes, we try to count too many things. With regard to priorities, “if everything counts, then nothing counts.”

Within the first few days of the Omer this year, I missed both the evening counting and the morning make-up. I was visiting my mom in the hospital, where you can’t tell day from night. (Hospitals are like casinos in this way, but with louder bells and worse prizes. Thankfully, my mother is now home.) Absorbed with my mother’s plummeting platelet counts, I forgot to count the Omer.

Positive Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar, a dear mentor and friend, grants his students and readers “permission to be human.” In this case, it’s understandable that I stopped “numbering my days” and temporarily lost my entrainment with Jewish time and the opportunity to “apply [my] heart unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12, KJV).

But it’s not only under unusual circumstances that we bungle our counting commitments. I once announced the wrong day of the Omer from the bimah — when nothing unusual was going on in my life. Try counting each in-breath during meditation and see how far you get before you become distracted and lose count.

Keeping count is a form of discipline. How and what we count is significant, but so is the content-neutral training to be attentive, exact, and consistent. How will we accomplish complex tasks and big dreams if we can’t even count from 1 to 49 reliably? Preacher Joyce Meyer asks, adding humor to lighten the rebuke: “How are you going to cast out devils, if you don’t even have authority over a sink full of dirty dishes?”

In Hebrew, counting the Omer alludes both to the numbering (sefirah) of days and to the unique combination of divine emanations (sefirot) assigned to each day. This Shabbat will be the 25th day of the Omer. Both the entire fourth week of the Omer and the day of the week on which the 25th day falls correspond to the divine quality of Netzach: mighty endurance and perseverance. Therefore, this Shabbat’s pairing of sefirot is “the netzach within netzach.” There is an endurance within — and required of — perseverance, and vice versa. The term “netzach within netzach” hints at the intense and consistent commitment that it takes to complete any worthy, long-term endeavor. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory, compared Netzach to a Jeep (and Hod to a Ferrari). Netzach will get you where you intend to go, regardless of terrain and even if you have to withstand a bumpy ride.

The devotee counts, loses count, yet perseveres in counting. Why? Because every life, every day, every moment counts. And because divine emanations pour into us — and hopefully, sometimes, also out of us.

Each of us chooses what we will count, how we will persist when we lose count or consistency, and what all this counting will mean. Misers count their money to hoard it and gain a false sense of security or power. Those who give tzedakah count their money in part to help distribute a portion of it and “save from death” (Prov. 10:2, Shabbat 156b). Embittered people count slights. Grateful ones count their blessings.

Now, still, we Jews are counting days. What does that mean for spiritual discipline? Mindfulness? Divine emanations? Recovery from slavery? Preparation for Sinai? Connection to God, the Jewish people, and our calendar? How does counting help us find joy in “this day that Adonai has made” (Ps. 118:24)?

These are good questions, worthy of exploration. But this year, after my initial stumble, I am moved to go back to basics. Just count. Each day. It’s the beginning of making each day count.

read more: