By Mike Steklof, Ed.D.
For the past 41 nights at exactly 9:30 pm, my phone buzzes. This buzzing is an alarm on my phone to remind me to count the Omer. For those unfamiliar with the practice, it is customary to verbally count up each of the forty-nine days beginning on the second night of Passover and culminating with Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.
Counting the Omer, connects us to the practice of bringing an offering containing a small measure of barley (called an Omer) to the Temple in Jerusalem to highlight the beginning of the agricultural harvest. At the culmination of the count (on Shavuot) a unique offering of two loaves of bread made of wheat were brought to the Temple. The Rabbis tell us that barley is considered an animal food while wheat is considered to be more fit for humans. This shift, moving from barely to wheat represents refinement as we prepare to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. This period of refinement is important because we were transitioning from a newly freed nomadic people in the desert to a people with a purpose and mission through the giving of the Torah. We were also working to eliminate the negative influence of Egypt. By Shavuot, through this refinement process it is said that we become successful at removing the Egyptian influence within and were ready to receive the Torah.
Thus, the idea of counting during this time represents the spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai on Shavuot.
The first time I heard of this practice, I was confused, shouldn’t we be counting down like we do each year on New Year’s Eve or how many count down to their birthday!
It turns out, there is another time in the year when we count up. The Talmud teaches:
“The House of Hillel says: On the first night [of Chanukah] we light one candle, from there on we add one candle each night, ending with eight candles… since One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade. (Shabbat 21b.)”
Just as Hillel taught us to light an additional light each night of Chanukkah to increase the light in our lives during the dark days of winter, we are reminded of this lesson when we count up during the Omer to fulfill the commandment that states, “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering, the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven complete weeks.” (Leviticus 23:15).
Counting up is different than counting down, when we count down to something, the days before are less important than the actual day, But when we count up, all the days before are part of the preparation to reach the destination.
So why do I have an alarm that goes off at 9:30 pm every night to remind me to count up? You’d think I would remember by now to count the Omer each night (It’s been 41 nights!). It turns out it isn’t so easy to remember to count even if one has been counting up for the past forty days. It can be difficult to remember to pause, take a deep breath and think about the uniqueness of the day that has just ended. Counting up, forces you to take a step back from the busyness of life, pause and reflect on the good from the past day. Remembering to count the Omer is remembering that tomorrow should be better then today. Rebbe Nachman teaches, “If you are no better tomorrow than you are today – what need have you for tomorrow?!” This season and the counting of the Omer reminds us of the journey from Egypt to Sinai, slavery to revelation, Passover to Shavuot, barley to wheat and to always be thankful of the good in our lives.
Chana Dickter, founding member and teacher at Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, in reflecting on the Omer, says, “We count so we too will be counted … amongst our people in war, in peace, in health and in sickness and in-between”.
Mike Steklof, Ed.D, is a Director of Jewish Experience at LiNK Jewish Buffalo and is counting up for (at least) 8 more days.