Every year, I find that I am changed by the Omer. The Omer is the period of 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. It originated in the Torah as a way of marking the days until the harvest. Today, Jews count each day by reciting a blessing then announcing the day out loud. There is a psalm that accompanies the moment of counting. A special trait, a middah, is assigned to each of the 7 weeks, like gratitude, humility, strength, and love.
Marking time using qualities we want to develop within ourselves is much more powerful than counting with minutes and seconds. Sometimes I set a goal for myself based on one of the 7 middot of the Omer. In these circumstances, I use the 49 days as my deadline for achieving the goal. Several years ago, during the Omer, I was drawn to the trait of gevurah, strength. I wondered why. How did I need strength that year? What fear did I need to overcome? Right before the Omer started that year, I was asked to teach an online Mussar class. I said no because I was afraid that I couldn’t manage the tech needed to do it. I realized that I could use gevurah to overcome my fear of tech. I gave myself the 49 days of the Omer to learn how to teach online. I used each week’s trait to help me achieve my goal. I did it! The Omer that year taught me that I can achieve whatever I set my mind to accomplish. I moved through the Omer not by linear time in days and weeks, but by working with the traits.
Traditionally, the Omer is seen as a time of semi-mourning because of a plague that occurred among Rabbi Akiva’s students during these weeks in Talmudic times. During the past three years of COVID, our plague, I added the counting of hospitalizations and deaths to the counting of the Omer. I counted the days of isolation, and I counted my fears and my blessings. Each day of the 49 was filled with life and death, rather than hours.
The act of counting during these past three years has also been an act of hope. The Jewish day begins at night, rather than in the morning. So we count the Omer at night. For example, day 34 is counted in the evening of day 33. Therefore, counting the Omer is a statement of faith that tomorrow will come and we will be alive to see it. The count means that we believe in the hope that comes with the promise of a new day. I am reminded of the Midrash, the story, about Adam’s first night. As the sun began to set, and darkness fell, he thought his life was ending. He cried and worried and couldn’t sleep for anxiety. Then light came back, and he saw he had survived. Nighttime can bring relaxation and release, but it can also bring nightmares. The morning sun seems to make the world feel a bit better. Counting the Omer at night reassures us that there is hope ahead.
The Omer, and Judaism as a whole, helps us move through time via holiness, and count it via blessings. I’d rather have blessings than a watch any day!
(This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. Rabbi Marcia Plumb is the Rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Brookline, MA).