Dec 09 2012

The Days Of the Omer : Making them count

Published by at 8:46 pm under Uncategorized

The days of the Omer: Making them “Count”

The story is told of the middle aged man who was an extremely traditional Jew, and had never missed a Passover Seder, since he could remember. Aside from Judaism, his other passion was his beloved hockey team, the NY Rangers. As fate would have it, one year the Rangers were to play in a crucial playoff game, and  thee man was in a state of shock when he found out that it would take place on Seder eve. As he sat there in a cationic state, his wife advised him that perhaps he ought to speak with his Rabbi about how to deal with this crises. Upon opening his study door, the Rabbi could immediately see that all was  not right.” Sam, he said, I’ve never seen you like this, you look as pale as a ghost” Sam shared his dilemma with the Rabbi and explained that no matter which path he followed, he would have endless guilt and frustration regarding missing the other. The Rabbi thought for a moment.” Sam”, he said, do you remember a sermon that I gave last year, about how everything in God’s world can help us observer God better. I spoke about technology, and how in our generation, we need to put it to good use.” Yes Rabbi, I remember, but what has that have to do with me?” Have you ever heard of video tape?” asked the Rabbi with a twinkle in his eye. All of a sudden, Sam’s face lit up, like it hadn’t in days. He thanked the Rabbi profusely, and headed home to tell his wife the good news.” Laura, that Rabbi of ours is wonderful, an absolute genius!” Wow, that’s great, what did he say?” The Rabbi said that I should go ahead and tape the Seder!”

Sometimes in our lives’ as Jews, many of us feel that our observance is likened to a video tape. After all, we go through the same motions every day, and outside of perhaps, the major holidays, it is quite easy for our enthusiasm in serving God to become stale. If we pray daily, Tuesday’s prayer is much like Wednesdays. Shabbat, as wonderful as it may be, can also feel repetitive, as though we can put it on auto pilot and it will keep itself. I always mention in my classes, that the Talmud says that a “Baal Yeshiva” someone who does the Mitzvoth, who was not brought up in a fully observant home, has greater merit than an FFB, From (observant ) from birth. He has an excitement and freshness  to his worship that it is sometimes hard for others to emulate. The purpose of a Jew, therefore is to approach his or her service to the almighty, as though he/she is performing it all over again for the first time. This means, basically, that a Jew needs to be in a constant growth mode, always figuring out ways to reinvent and add freshness to his or her service. This year’s Seder should not be the same as last year’s and likewise, next year’s has to have its own special feeling.

On the second night of Passover, the Jewish people began the ritual known as the “counting of the Omer” Although the Omer is probably best known for the tragedies that transpired during it, in the era of the Rabbis, hence the popularity of “Lag Baomer”, the day in which there were no deaths, the actual directive of the counting is found in the book of Leviticus. For the purposes of this article, we will stick with the Biblical angle of this Mitzvah, while next time we will explore the mourning of the tragedies during these days, in the next newsletter we send out. The Torah tells us that the Omer was an offering of the first of one’s wheat, which symbolized a person’s recognition, that all his sustenance ultimately came from above, and therefore there was no hesitation to give some away as per God’s directive. The Torah continues the from the night of the Omer, one counts 50 days, that is until the fiftieth day, which is Shavuot, the days we received the Torah at Mount Sinai
It is interesting to note, that this period of time, has no name accorded to it by the Torah, nor do we find by any other holiday, the concept of a “countdown” toward its celebration.

Our sages explain that ideally, the Jewish people should have received the Torah immediately after crossing the Sea. After all, this was the sole reason for leaving Egypt, to become the Lord’s people. But there was a serious problem. The Jews had been in a foreign culture for so many years, that the Egyptian society and its value system, had rubbed off on them, to the point that they were at the 49th state of levels of impurity, had they fallen one more rung, they would have been beyond salvation. Indeed, all of us would readily admit that we are products of our society, and it is because of this that we try to be careful that we, and certainly our children, do not soak up the undesirable influences that are part of our culture. And although the Jewish people were ultimately redeemed because they preserved “ their names, their dress, and their language”, nonetheless, they suffered tremendous attrition and spiritual damage, as any nation that would have resided in the decadent nature of Egyptian society, would have.

Therefore, said the Lord that the Jews needed to purify themselves, to shed them of the Egyptian mindset, before they could merit the gift of the Torah. They would count forty nine days, each day they would rise a level from the lowest level of impurity, thereby preparing them to greet the Almighty on the fiftieth day. Perhaps this helps explain why we count upward from one, rather than downward from forty. Aside from the fact that starting with forty nine might seem depressing, if we understand that each day of the Omer we rise a degree in spirituality, it makes perfect sense that we count upward, that is to say. Today we are one level higher than yesterday..two levels in our growth in purity. All the way up to the highest level and the opportunity to experience national revelation.

There is an interesting discussion in the Talmud, as to whether the Mitzvah of the counting is one long Mitzvah of forty nine days, or whether each and every single day is considered a Mitzvah unto itself. This discussion emanates from the Torah’s ambiguity in its description of the counting. “ Seven full weeks you should count…..count fifty days.

Depending on which way one learns the verse, there are some ve3ry important differences that arise, when it comes to the actual law. If we say, for starters, that each day is a Mitzvah unto itself, then it would stand to  reason that one would be required to recite a blessing on each night, and subsequently would continue to recite the counting each night with a blessing, even if he skipped a night. Since every night is its own Mitzvah, missing the third night, should not affect my obligation for the fourth night.

The other logic that is advanced, is that the Torah told us that it is a counting of seven weeks, and therefore, one long Mitzvah. If so, there would be no need to recite a blessing on each night, just as we do not recite a blessing on each bite of an apple, as it is one “Mitzvah session” According to this approach however, if one missed a night of the count, he has not fulfilled his obligation in this long Mitzvah.

So how do we practice our counting, as one long Mitzvah, or as forty nine separate Mitzvahs?

Most of us know the old story of the two litigants who come before a judge. The first one advances his case, and upon conclusion, the judge says “You are right”

The second man goes on for fifteen minutes, the judge furrows his brow and proclaims “You are right”

Suddenly the usually quiet stenographer leaps from her perch and exclaims “they can’t both be right “

Not missing a beat, the magistrate responds, “You are also right!”

When it comes to the practical Mitzvah of the Omer, we take points from both positions of the sages, and practice elements from both sides of the spectrum. We say that every day is an individual Mitzvah, and therefore a blessing is recited each and every night. On the other hand, we acknowledge that it is also one long Mitzvah, and therefore, if a night is missed ( and not counted during the following day without a blessing ), then can only continue counting without a blessing, because the link in the seven week chain was broken. In short, we consider each day in itself worthy of a blessing, but only when it is in the context of an uninterrupted counting, based on the directive of “Seven weeks”.

The wonderful thing about Jewish law, is that if we examine it closely, we can’t help but realize, that it’s practice is not a mere set of calisthenics, but rather, it serves to accomplish the very theme that it seeks to convey.

The entire concept of  waiting forty nine days, was for the Jewish people to rise in their spirituality, one rung of the ladder at a time. This is not merely a historical perspective, but as we know, each holiday is not only a commemoration, but is designed to for us to accomplish its themes and its lessons as  they relate to us in the present, as well as in the past. A person who wants to raise his or herself in levels of spirituality, needs to approach his goal with a double edged sword. Each and every day of growth needs to be a “Mitzvah” in its own right, yet he/she must complete the task without the usual unsteadiness that undermines our goals.

The Talmud relates the very famous story about Rabbi Akiva, who at the encouragement of his holy wife Rachel, went to study in Yeshiva despite being a Hebrew illiterate at the age of forty. When the Rabbi arrived at his doorstep after twelve long years ( no email then ), he overheard a neighbor chastising his wife for allowing her husband to leave for twelve years. “If I had it my way”, said Rachel, “I would have him go back and stay another twelve years. Right away, says the Talmud, he turned in the other direction, and “re – upped” for another dozen.

The obvious question that must and is asked by the late Dean of the famous Mirer Yeshiva, is, why didn’t rabbi Akiva at least come in and say hello? Would it have been so bad to have had shared a cup of coffee with his righteous bride? Why was it necessary for him to “about face” when clearly on the surface it didn’t seem natural>

explain the rabbis, that indeed, for a regular person, such a break would have well been warranted. But this was Rabbi Akiva, we are speaking about – a man whom Moses asked God, why he Moses was giving the Torah and not Rabbi Akiva. For a man of Rabbi Akiva’s stature, explain the sages, had he entered the house and then returned to study, he would have studied 12 year plus another 12 years. By not entering the house, he studied 24 uninterrupted years. 12 plus 12, for a Rabbi Akiva, does not equal 24.

A spiritual growth ,In order to be successful, it must be contiguous. We can’t take one day on and one day off. While certainly we need to take it slowly, and not be resigned to all or nothing, our attempts must be consistent or else we will never succeed. Of the three questions that the Lord will ask us in heaven, on will be, “did you set aside time for Torah study. God won’t ask us simply if we studied, but rather was there a time in your week, even 20 minutes, that was set aside for my Torah, as you would set aside for an important client. Our job is not necessarily to accomplish everything, but to be consistent on what we set out to accomplish. As anyone who frequents a gym will attest to, if one is not consistent, he/she will not fully benefit and will ultimately drop out. Similarly, offer the Rabbis, if I turn the fire on from beneath the kettle, and I shut it off 30 seconds before it hits boil, then I let it cool down and repeat the process time after time – in the end I will have had the fire on for 90% of the time, but I never followed through, hence no boil.

Perhaps this is the idea behind the “ one long Mitzvah” of the Omer. Each day of the Omer, we strive to achieve a higher level. We work on ourselves, striving to improve. But the moment that we lapse and our spiritual growth misses a day, so on such a growth, one that is no longer contiguous, we can no longer recite a Beracha. We never give up of course, and therefore we continue to count, albeit without the blessing.

In a similar vein, spiritual growth, as with any goal, must be worked on each and every day. It is not enough to say that we will transform ourselves by seven weeks from the second Seder. Each and every day has to yield results, as it is a Mitzvah unto itself. For if we set long term goals, but are not careful to work on them each and every day, we are setting ourselves up for failure. The person who goes on a diet and proclaims that within two months, he/she will drop 15 pounds, will not succeed merely by looking at his long term goal, rather each and every day he/she must struggle, because it is the individual days that contribute to success.

We all have a unique opportunity over the next five weeks, to develop ourselves, not only as Jews, but as better human beings. Undoubtedly, we all want to develop spiritually, the problem is that there are so many other things on our plate, that religion gets lost in the shuffle. I had a Rabbi who used to tell the class, to pick one Mitzvah, no matter how easy it seems, and to make that your Mitzvah. Become proficient in it, “Google” it, and learn it’s parameters and philosophies behind it. Spend two minutes a day, but makes sure to do it every day. Focus on what we do, rather than on what we do not do.

I would suggest that the message of the Omer, and of the anticipation we have of the arrival of Torah, serves to remind us that each and every Jew has an equal right, opportunity, and obligation, to revel, study, perform and be proud of our heritage. There is no class system among us Jews, each of us are allotted the same stature and opportunities. Indeed, one needn’t be a Rabbi in our day and age, in order to study the most in depth works, for they all for the most part are available in English. So head over to Wesley Hills, drop in on a Torah lecture, or listen to a class while you commute.

So let us take the individual days and the entire set of weeks that lie ahead, and make our count more meaningful as we prepare to embrace our Torah.