Life After Redemption: Why Counting the Omer Is A Quintessential Jewish Experience

I also think this is but one of many different ways we can dedicate ourselves to deriving spiritual nourishment from these 49 days.

Passover is finally over.  Many of you reading this are probably munching on a bagel at this very moment, celebrating the return of carbs to our daily diets! But after a few days of gluttonous consumption of pizza, cookies, bread, and other delicious items, we may discover that while our bellies are full, spiritually we lack nourishment.

Passover Seders are the most widely practiced Jewish ritual in America.  And this is for good reason: Seders connect us to our past, bring family and friends together at the dining room table, and convey a vibrant and compelling narrative of our ancestors’ redemption from slavery.  Passover also embodies a culmination of sorts. It is the final major holiday most American Jews celebrate during the Jewish holiday calendar, give or take those who celebrate Shavuot (AKA the late-night cheesecake festival). Spring is in the air, summer is around the corner, and the academic calendar for students in college, Day Schools, and religious schools are rapidly coming to an end.

At times like these, we can find ourselves a little adrift spiritually. Unlike in the fall, when Rosh Hashanah leads into Yom Kippur which leads into Sukkot, the splendor and fervor of Passover, coupled with the absence of any religious content immediately afterward, can leave us wanting.  It turns out, though, that the rabbis of old did not intend for us to be left religiously isolated after Passover.  Instead, they left behind another ritual, well known but little practiced, that I think can and should be a point of personal engagement for each of us: the counting of the omer.

The omer refers to the 49-day period between the second night of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.  “Omer” means a sheaf of barley and connotes the ancient agricultural heritage of Shavuot, when Jews would bring their first sheaves of barley from their spring harvest to offer as sacrifices.  After the destruction of the Second Temple, the omer became relegated to the realm of liturgy, with Jews reciting a prayer and an enunciation of the new day every night from the second night of Passover until Shavuot.  In recent years, however, many people have turned to mystical interpretations of these 49 days, infusing them with kabbalistic meaning as a 49-step self-empowerment regimen.  You can now purchase books or go online or here, to find out about how each new day offers psycho-spiritual insights to improve your inner character.

I applaud these neo-kabbalistic efforts to make the omer resonant in a contemporary way.  I also think this is but one of many different ways we can dedicate ourselves to deriving spiritual nourishment from these 49 days.  Why not put this demarcated time to other sacred uses?  For those who are interested in social justice, take some of the action items from the myriad social justice haggadot we just used and apply them.  Join up with Hazon and other Jewish environmentalists to attend the People’s Climate Mobilization March in D.C. on April 29th.  Work on state campaigns (since many state legislators are only active in the spring) to enact legislation addressing criminal justice issues championed by Jewish organizations like Bend The Arc or Tru’ah, from bail reform to reducing the use of solitary confinement to expanding drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration.  If you are looking for other political or civic engagement, go to https://thesixtyfive.org/home for a list of weekly opportunities. Or, if you prefer something less overtly political, do something to get out of your groupthink silo for the next 49 days by reading a newspaper with a different political slant than your own, starting a book club with people of different political views, or committing in some other way to hearing alternative perspectives.  Take care of your body by signing up for that 30-day weight-loss program you keep meaning to start but keep “forgetting” to enroll in.

Any of these intentional efforts, or any others you can come up with, will undoubtedly enrich your life over the duration of the omer cycle and beyond.  But doing so also conveys something else, something deep and foundational when it comes to Judaism: that Judaism is about the journey, not the destination.  Judaism celebrates process over end result.  It is no accident that our legal system is called “Halakha,” meaning “the path.”  We re-read the same Torah portions each year, ending and then immediately starting anew every Simhat Torah.  There is no such thing as a culmination or completion.  This is why counting the omer is a quintessential way to experience Judaism. We convert the fixed religious ritual of the Passover Seder from a singular event into a point of departure for a seven-week odyssey of personal growth and transformation.  I hope you will join me in this adventure!

 

Photo attribution:
By Mark Robinson (originally posted to Flickr as Summer At Last) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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