I’m really curious, how many of you have been regularly marking this time of COVID-19?
I’m inclined to start scratching tally marks on my wall with each passing day, although I can’t quite get myself to do something like that. My husband, Jack, has stopped shaving his beard to simply see how long it will grow until this is over. Maybe you’re keeping a journal or are finding ways to meditate or reflect meaningfully each day. But when it comes to marking time that is at once significant and yet seemingly endless, it can be hard to know exactly what to do with ourselves.
For a few days now, I’ve been thinking about how lucky we’ve been to have had a major holiday like Passover to focus on, worry about, celebrate and generally “get us through” this period of the COVID-19 pandemic so far, however compromised our observance of the holiday may have been. But now what?
Oddly enough, this period of open time seems to have been an issue for Jewish communities of the past, too. Perhaps because the essence of Jewish life is about living thoughtfully and intentionally, we were given a small, yet fascinating bridge to mark this period between Passover and the late spring holiday of Shavuot, which falls this year on May 29.
And yet, for many Jews today, Shavuot is not as significant a holiday as Passover has been in helping us get through this time. I’ll have more to say about Shavuot at a later point, but for now, I think it’s important to note that this year, more than ever, we can look to this ancient bridge of counting time between the two holidays, called Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the omer, as a way to gain a new and helpful habit and perspective as life during COVID-19 continues on.
Like most Jewish customs, the omer’s origins are multi-layered. They are at once agricultural and spiritual. The Torah tells us,
“From the day you bring an omer of grain offering, you shall count off seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days” (Leviticus 23:15-16).
After much debate, the rabbis of yore concluded that the counting begins on the second day of Passover.
We see that originally, the counting had to do with bringing a daily offering of a grain, which has long been understood to mean barley, over the course of seven weeks (an omer is a specific measure of grain). The concluding day, Shavuot, also known as the Festival of Weeks, was a time of celebrating the late spring harvest, and the offering of barley, the first crop to ripen in the spring, was to be replaced with the later-maturing wheat. But once the ancient Temple was destroyed and offerings were no longer brought, Jewish communities kept the custom of counting for seven weeks going and found spiritual meaning in counting the days between the liberation from Egypt (Passover) to the day of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (also associated with Shavuot).
What fascinates me about this is the way in which we’ve come to count the days. We count up once a day in the evening with a blessing for counting! When you think about it, we generally count down when we’re looking forward to something, counting down the last days of school, counting down the days till our vacation or the secular new year. But with the omer, we count up (first day, second day, etc.), like we do the days of Hannukah. And not only do we count up, but we count up in increments of seven days, which divides the counting into helpful week chunks, but we also count for seven weeks, making for a 7×7 calendar, which is a most holy number in Jewish tradition (Shabbat is the seventh day of the week, Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the seventh month). This teaches us that we can make any amount of mundane time structured and holy if we want to.
If you’re thinking, “But what’s so special about merely counting?” you’re not wrong. We still need to be counting with a purpose. And this is where I think an ancient custom infused with our modern perspective has a special role to play in our lives this year.
Let’s first get into the mindset of an ancient Israelite. It’s spring time, but the weather is still unreliable and nippy. Maybe there won’t be enough rain, or maybe too much! Watching the weeks go by between the early and late harvests would have been a time of both hope and anxiety. This in-between time does not have a prescribed outcome. So you count and you bring whatever offering you can, like barley, to show your gratitude for what you do have and to state your needs for what you lack. Alternatively, you’re the Israelite who has just fled Egypt. You’ve been freed from slavery, but you’re not sure what it all leads to. What is your freedom for? As you march through the wilderness of possibility, you at once fear not knowing what’s ahead, while you anticipate all the wisdom, growth and change this time might bring.
Now, look at your life and our society today.
There are many ways to count the days during this time of the omer, including growing your hair and keeping a journal. There are also apps, websites and sports-themed counters (for those really feeling that lack right now), as well as modern guides that follow the mystical seven sefirot, the kabbalistic emanations of Godliness, tuning ourselves into the qualities of the weeks as a way to continue to cultivate our best, most expansive selves.
Our sages say that Torah, deep wisdom, is only truly attained in a state of wilderness, in the ambiguous, uncertain in-between times and places in our lives.
What if we, to the best that we can, started counting this wild and scary time we’re in to reflect on what we’re seeing and learning, to be grateful and afraid all at once? What if we gave ourselves five minutes each day to do that? Maybe then, in counting, we’ll be going somewhere incredible we didn’t think possible. If you’ve been counting since you’ve gone into social isolation, or since another significant moment, great, keep going!
If you’d like to jump on the omer bandwagon now, we’re counting Day 9 tonight!
About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.