A Jewish Obsession With Counting

Maybe you can relate. For the last few months I’ve attached a small device that counts my every step. At the end of the day, I can always tell just how far I’ve gotten and how much progress (or lack thereof) I’ve made. It is a good feeling to be able to see the forward motion.

Now I’ve added another layer of counting and accounting. The moment we finished the 13th verse of “Who Knows One?” and had enumerated Judaism’s many values, we turned our attention to counting days. Because in reality, miraculous liberation is just the beginning.

Starting on the second night of Passover, Jewish tradition teaches us to count the days and the weeks until we reach Shavuot. In ancient times Passover held a place in a holy threesome, which in the days when the Temple stood in Jerusalem included Sukkot and Shavuot. Each of these were pilgrimage holidays, which saw householders filling wagons and walking for days with their families, servants, and animals. It must have been an extraordinary sight, part carnival, part spiritual journey. Counting down to these events must have come naturally, integrated into the preparation from Passover to Shavuot.

For most modern Jews, by contrast, Passover is the main event. Shavuot is really an after thought, a minor holiday.

Still I’m not ready to let go of the counting. The simple ritual of numbering the nights and then the weeks from Passover to Shavuot, is a reminder that liberation is not just an end in and of itself but also a beginning. At Passover we celebrate the ability to break free of that, which enslaves us.

We all have our burdens. And Passover celebrates the idea of being able to miraculously free ourselves from those burdens. But it is never that simple. Liberation takes work. There may be that miraculous moment but as the Israelites learned, walking through the sea was just the beginning. They would have to recommit themselves daily to the trust in God, to the power to move forward. And every day that passed, every day brought them further from their enslavement and closer to revelation.

Don’t underestimate the value of counting. On January 1st, many of us in North America take all sorts of vows to liberate ourselves from traits that enslave us. But left to our own devices, we usually find ourselves enslaved back in the same patterns in short order.

This year, for me was different. I set some modest goals. Nothing big. And the counting helped. Knowing, at the end of each day, I was making progress on the steps helped me know I could go forward. I could make this work. And at some point, I reached a new place. I had a real revelation. Not only could I achieve modest goals but larger ones as well, it was in my power to do so.

Counting the Omer can serve a similar function. Most of us sat around the table over the weekend and declared our own liberation. If we took the narrative into our own lives then we took some time to consider those things, which enslave us, or others around us. And we prayed together for liberation.

Serious liberation, however, cannot occur simply because we talk about it one night. We need to be reminded over and over of the importance of moving forward and leaving the traps of the past behind. Counting the Omer is a daily reminder of where we have been, how far we have come and where we hope to get to. It is a reminder that we, like the ancient Israelites, need to actively walk towards the mountain of revelation. God will light the way, provide sustenance and hope, but we will need to climb over rocks, trek through wilderness, be discouraged, and prepare ourselves if we are to have the revelations that we aim to receive.

So I’m grateful for the counting. It is an opportunity, just like my step meter, to keep track of how I’m doing, to account for my spiritual growth and liberation. There are indeed apps for that, if you like the gizmos and the external reminders. And there is satisfaction in the counting. Because we do have the power to move ourselves toward the revelation that we deserve.

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