Rabbi Martha Bergadine
The United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
One of the (many) differences between living in Hong Kong and the States is school trips. Where in the U.S. our children might have contented themselves with a trip to the zoo, a museum, or the state capitol, my daughter’s educational visits have taken her to Beijing, London, Venice, Berlin, Prague, Kiev, and very soon, Nepal.
A few weeks ago, my youngest went on his class trip to Shanghai. This was a sort of rite of passage – his first time traveling without any family – and beginning about three weeks prior to departure be began counting the days, marking them off with an “X” on the calendar. As the countdown progressed his anticipation and excitement grew.
Right now, we Jews find ourselves in the midst of such a countdown – the counting of the Omer, the 49 days between the second night of Pesach and Shavuot. This countdown is described in the passage of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, which presents the Festival calendar. The Torah says
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; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering . . . On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you . . . (Ex, 23:15, 16)
The sheaf mentioned here, called an omer, literally “a measure” in Hebrew, refers to the first grain to ripen in the spring, and gives the period between Passover and Shavuot its name -- “The Omer.” The sacred occasion at the end of the counting is Shavuot, literally “weeks,” a reference to the week of weeks (7 weeks x 7 days) of the Omer preceding it.
While the Torah is silent about the reason for counting the weeks, the agricultural roots of the Omer period are clear. The omer was brought at the beginning of the barley harvest, and the harvesting of grain continued throughout the seven weeks. This period culminated on Shavuot with the offering of bread made from wheat as an act of thanksgiving. For a farming society, this was a powerful recognition that God, not the farmer, ultimately “brings forth bread from the earth.”
But today, the counting of the Omer appears to depart from the Torah’s instructions. We begin counting on the second night of Passover, rather than the day after Shabbat as mentioned in the Torah. And the 50th day, Shavuot, is celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah, not by the offering of bread. How are we to reconcile that with the Torah’s statement?
The rabbis taught that “the Sabbath” does not refer to the usual day of rest, but here to the first day of Pesach, and so the count should begin on the second night of Passover. The implication of this timing and is profound: Shavuot becomes the fulfillment of the Exodus. The Israelites are not delivered from Egypt to simply be a free people, rather, they are to be transformed into a holy nation. Through the revelation at Sinai and the Israelites’ acceptance of the Covenant, their transformation from avdei Pharaoh – slaves of Pharaoh – to avdei HaShem – servants of God is made complete. They are not simply freed from slavery but rather freed for the purpose of being God’s people because only when they are free from bondage are the Israelites truly free to commit themselves. Passover and Shavuot then, are not separate holidays, rather they are one unit linked by the Omer.
Fulfilling the mitzvah of counting the Omer can help us prepare to recommit ours to the Covenant on Shavuot. The procedure of counting the Omer is simple and can be found on page 570 of Mishkan T’filah. At the most basic level, taking the time to count each evening allows us to stop our usual activity and be fully present for a moment. By counting the Omer we are reminded that every day counts – this maybe a cliché but it is true. Pausing to count we can ask: How have we spent our time? And how have we used our freedom? To what are we most strongly committed? How can we deepen our commitment to Torah and the Jewish people?
By linking Exodus of Passover with the revelation of Shavuot, the Omer reminds us that we are truly free only when we commit ourselves to a purpose. The week of weeks that is the Omer offers us an opportunity for reflection and growth as we draw nearer to Sinai.
But perhaps most simply, counting the Omer reminds us of how thrilling it is to look forward to an exciting experience or a wonderful gift. The rabbis taught that, like my son crossing off the days before his trip to Shanghai, the Israelites were so excited to receive the Torah at Sinai that they counted off the days, the days of the Omer.
Like them, may our hearts always be filled with excitement, joy, and wonder as we contemplate God’s gift of Torah.