COUNTING EACH EVENING
“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.” (Leviticus 23:15)
I spent the weekend visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and grandson in Clover, SC, a small community near Charlotte, NC. Needless to say, a small town in South Carolina is quite different from where I live in South Florida. It is mostly very conservative and very Christian. There is a small scattering of Jewish families. I am thrilled that these families have formed a Reform congregation that meets in a local church. My daughter teaches Sunday school there while my grandson attends.
On Sunday I went to speak to the 30 or so children who attend the Sunday school. I began by telling how the night before I had counted 24 days which makes 3 weeks and 3 days. What was I doing? None of them knew. Then I said I was counting the Omer, as we are commanded in this week’s portion. We count 7 weeks of 7 days each, then after 49 we celebrate a Jewish festival. Did they know which festival? None of them knew. I finally told them Shavuot, the feast of weeks, the day we celebrate the giving of the Torah.
I explained the tradition of eating dairy, in particular cheese blintzes, on Shavuot. I then said tongue-in-cheek, I am sure every restaurant in South Carolina carries cheese blintzes. That solicited some smiles. One teacher said you can get a cheese quesadilla in many restaurants – close enough. And some of the local supermarkets carry frozen cheese blintzes. Maybe some of these students will try them. I then told them that we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot. Ruth tells the Biblical story of the woman who cast her lot with the Jewish people, becoming one of the first converts to Judaism. She became the great grandmother of King David. Several of the students volunteered how their mother or their father had converted to Judaism. We discussed the giving of the Torah, and I hope I brought a bit of Judaism to this out-of-the-way town.
Of all the major festivals on the Jewish calendar, Shavuot is the most ignored. Most of these students had heard the shofar blown on Rosh Hashana, lit Hanukkah candles, searched for the hidden matzah on Passover. Some had waved a lulav and etrog on Sukkot. But Shavuot, falling in the early summer, was unknown. But the daily counting, which I do every evening, contains an important lesson. It helps us build up anticipation towards something special.
If Passover is the festival of freedom, the counting of the Omer shows that freedom is not enough. It must be combined with moving in a direction, going towards something. Young people grow up, leave home, and celebrate their freedom. But then very quickly they become lost, not knowing what they want to do with their lives. They drift aimlessly, sometimes moving back in with their parents, sometimes falling into a depression, and too often suffering the ravages of addiction. Freedom alone is not enough. Freedom must be combined with moving towards something. That is the true meaning of the counting of the Omer.
Jewish mystics who developed kabbalah gave each day of the counting of the Omer a special mystical meaning. They took the lower seven Sefirot – the ten manifestations of God’s emanation – and put them together in every possible combination. The lower seven Sefirot are Hesed (kindness), Gevurah (restraint), Tiferet (beauty), Netzech (eternity), Hod (glory), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (majesty). The first day of the Omer is Hesed within Hesed, the second day is Gevurah within Hesed, etc. for seven weeks. The idea is to use the seven weeks as a period of spiritual transformation.
To the Jews who live in smaller communities in South Carolina and elsewhere, I invite you to invite your Christian neighbors over on the fiftieth day, Shavuot (this year Thursday evening May 25.) Tell them it is the Jewish source of Pentecost, which is a Christian festival. (50 days after Easter when the holy spirit descended on Jesus’s disciples.) Light candles, bless the wine, make cheese blintzes (frozen if necessary), and celebrate this joyous but oft-neglected Jewish festival.