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Kingdom of Priests

Tonight (i.e., Thursday) Jews counted the 8th day of the Omer, a commandment touched upon in Leviticus 23:15-16:

And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the omer of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall present a new meal-offering unto the LORD.

What’s this got to do with you? I explain in this week’s Forward:

Omer in America

With its roots ostensibly in seasonal farming routines, the Jewish ritual of counting the Omer between Passover and Shavuot doesn’t at first seem ripe with contemporary significance. But I often remember Rabbi David Lapin’s comment that he is surprised at how previous generations found as much meaning in Jewish observances as they did, when the real importance of some of those practices became apparent only much later.

One thinks of Shabbat. In this Blackberry age, in which work otherwise intrudes upon “rest days” more insistently than anyone would have thought possible before e-mail, a divinely ordained Sabbath was never more crucial. The Omer, too, seems more timely than in past generations.

The Omer is counted each night, starting with the second Seder and counting up to 49, and is followed by Shavuot. Hence the latter festival’s English name, Pentecost, meaning the 50th day. When Jews were predominantly agriculturalists, there was practical relevance to this: The new grain crop couldn’t be eaten until the count was completed.

Of course there’s more to it than that. Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, while Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai seven weeks later. On Passover, the Jews received freedom from Egyptian slavery. On Shavuot, they received the revealed will of God, the meaning of their freedom.

That intermediate time was uncomfortable, and it is meant to be so now. Waiting is never fun, and the Omer period is made less so by mourning practices that have come to be attached to 33 of those 49 days.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described Passover and the Omer as designating two separate orders of human experience. Passover is a time of miracles, of clear evidence of God’s caring providence. The Omer is a time when God’s presence is clouded. We are confused, wandering, waiting.

Continue reading on the Forward op-ed page!

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