“Teach us to count our days rightly, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
The essence of this verse from Psalms is reflected in countless Jewish blessings and teachings, encouraging movement through life with gratitude for our every day. There is no period, however, that more effectively captures its meaning than that in which we currently find ourselves, that of the Omer. The verse is particularly apt here because the Omer is a period of counting daily, out loud from the second night of Passover, to the holiday of Shavuot, traditionally considered the day the Torah (and thus wisdom) was bestowed upon the Jewish people. But framing the Omer as a linear path from redemption to revelation belies notable nuances and enigmas contained within those seven weeks of travel from one festival to the next.
While most commonly celebrated today as Z’man Matan Torateinu, Time of the Giving of Our Torah, Shavuot is spoken of in the Torah only as an agricultural festival, Hag HaKatzir, Festival of the Harvest. An omer is in fact a measure of barley that was waved in the Temple daily between the two major Pilgrimage Festivals of Pesach and Shavuot. Shavuot is a holiday on which we read of our obligation to leave portions of our harvest for those in need, and see those mitzvot reflected in the Book of Ruth’s story of love, hope and kindness. It’s not until Talmudic times that the culmination of the Omer’s count on the 6th of Sivan becomes linked to the day on which the Torah was revealed. And as the destination – the precise nature of Shavuot – became complicated, so did the journey. So today, the Omer is a semi-mourning period on the Jewish calendar with wildly divergent reasons offered for its somberness.
Are we grieving the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the Bar Kokhba Revolt? Losses from a plague brought on by their not treating one another with love? Is it about nervousness regarding the welfare of crops? Or just intense focus on the improvement of our character traits such that we merit the receipt of Torah and its fiery secrets, as revealed by Shimon Bar Yohai? The answer of course is a resounding YES to all – but it depends on which Jew you ask (a warrior, scholar, farmer or mystic) – and when. Beyond the historical realities that have lent themselves to the varied interpretations of this period, there is profound meaning in viewing this variety as a metaphor for the diversity of ways by which Judaism itself is understood and lived.
Judaism, like the journey from Passover to Shavuot, is dynamic. Some connect through learning Torah and working actively on refining their middot (character traits), others through Israel or studying and honoring Jewish history, and still others through Judaism’s teachings on relationships, compassion, the environment and justice. Do I hope that each of these turns is taken in by travelers and that they delight in their winding overlaps? Certainly; but I know too that the full meaning of Judaism is yet to be revealed … and that revelation is dependent not only upon receiving, but what each soul contributes as well.
The simultaneously top-down and bottom-up nature of the revelatory experience is conveyed by the two seemingly unrelated names for Shavuot: Time of the Giving of Our Torah (Z’man Matan Torateinu), and Festival of [Offering] Our First Fruits (Hag HaBikkurim). Our tradition is adamant that every Jewish soul that ever was or will be was gathered at Sinai; and yet while we all received the Torah together, the midrashim stress how very different the experience of revelation was for each individual present. The need for and relationship between these two names thus makes sense: while we receive as a collective, we must cultivate the ability to offer bikkurim as individual pilgrims.
To take seriously the notion that each Jew has something quite distinct to contribute toward the end of revealing Torah is to embody the lessons learned by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the sage most intimately associated with the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag B’Omer. One of the most famous tales about Rabbi Shimon recounts his emergence from years of study in hiding with a gaze so fiercely judgmental that it consumed any Jew whose Judaism differed from his own; he is sent back into the cave from which he’d emerged until he obtains a heart of wisdom with room for Jews different from himself.
This year I find myself wanting to read Psalm 90 with a twist; instead of “teach us to count our days (yameinu),” I’m reading it “teach us to count our people (ameinu…).” We spend a lot of time bemoaning the disconnectedness of contemporary Jews from a sense of Jewish peoplehood – and we should – but perhaps we need to pause and have enough humility to ask and answer honestly the question of whether “their Judaism,” their contributions/bikkurim, really “count” in our eyes, whether there is a way in which apparent rejection of some offerings thwarts feelings of connectedness to Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.
I was moved to notice this year that the mystical attribute ascribed to the 33rd day of the Omer, is in fact profound humility (Hod ShebeHod). How fitting that this day is Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s yahrtzeit and the day on which the sadness of the Omer traditionally gives way to joy. It’s a day of recalling that we are traveling along the path from redemption to revelation with many pilgrims whose understanding of that path differs from our own – and that we can’t afford to leave Israelites behind in striving for Sinai.
The Omer reminds us that Judaism is more than a religion, more than any one thing. Its essence lies is the sum total of what Jews do and who Jews are, and we must journey together or risk losing something vital … of what the journey means ... of what it means to be a Jew. I pray that this year we arrive at Sinai prepared to stand, ever more intentionally together, humbly allowing for each soul to count.
RABBI MICHELLE T. DARDASHTI (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Associate Chaplain of the University for the Jewish Community and Rabbi, Brown RISD Hillel.