by Rabbi Batsheva Appel
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, we read not about counting down to a special date, but counting up. We read about the observance of Passover and then:
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days. [Leviticus 23:15 – 16]
On the second day of Passover, the omer, a sheaf of barley, is to be brought to the Temple to celebrate the barley harvest. Fifty days later, on Shavuot, wheat is to be brought to celebrate the wheat harvest. The period of forty-nine days is called the omer, the name for the sheaf of barley brought on Passover. To this day, every evening, Jews count the 49 days between the second night of Passover and the day before Shavuot and as they mark the passage of time they say a blessing, “who has commanded us regarding the counting of the omer”.
Because most of us no longer farm barley and wheat in Eretz Yisrael, we are now counting up the days for a different reason. If Passover celebrates our redemption from Mitzrayim and slavery; fifty days later, Shavuot celebrates revelation, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai. The fifty days now ties not two key crops, but two key moments in our people’s life. God freed us from Mitzrayim, so we could receive Torah from God at Sinai. This change transforms the omer from a worry about the wheat harvest to an anticipation of Sinai. We anticipate Torah so much that we count the days.
Our sense of time is different than that of our ancestors. While we are accustomed to counting down the days, there are two things for which we count up the days, like counting the omer before Shavuot. Just as we yearn for Torah, we may yearn for these things as well. When someone is pregnant, we count the days, the weeks, the months, until we reach forty weeks, if everything goes well. Another time when a person might count the days is when counting the days of sobriety or abstinence. Again, there is yearning and hope in the counting. In counting the omer, in counting the days of pregnancy, and in counting the days of sobriety, there is more than a sense of anticipation; there really is a desire for something that transforms our lives.
Receiving Torah, through learning, transforms us as well. Our desire for all of these things has us do more than just count the days; we spend those days preparing for these events. We read, we attend classes and meetings, we speak with other people who can share their experiences at the same moment in their lives, and we prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually for the transformation as well. As we continue to count the days of the omer, and look forward to celebrating Shavuot and the gift of Torah, may the days be ones in which we prepare ourselves for the possibility of transformation.
Rabbi Batsheva Appel is the senior rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation. Our Food Justice and Sustainability Project grows tons of organic produce for local shelters and soup kitchens, but no barley or wheat.