This was adapted from a sermon delivered for Parshat Emor, May 8, 2020, at Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, NC.

My son is having a birthday next week, and therefore, for this whole last week, and frankly, for about a month, he has been counting down. “Seven more sleeps until my birthday,” he’ll tell me. He’ll wake up and say, “Six more days until my birthday.” I find his excitement and enthusiasm endearing.

Approaching his sixth birthday, he has been intrigued by his own birth story. He loves hearing about being in my uterus and all the kicking he did. He simultaneously gasps and giggles when I tell him that he thought he wanted to meet us early, but then decided to wait, and it took over 36 hours for me to evict him.

He also loves counting his coins and his dollar bills, proudly telling me the sum. All day long we are counting something. It is in his nature, and mine. And I think it is innate for most of us.

One trait that sets humans apart from others in the animal kingdom is our relationship to time. We can experience it both as something relative and something absolute. We experience a past, a present, and a future. We have created units of time to measure its passing—from the very small millisecond 1For reference, it takes 400 milliseconds per human eye blink; a hummingbird beats its wings in 5 milliseconds to the unfathomable eon2Eon is about a billion years in astronomical time. Few of us live at either of those extremes however. We focus on the more manageable days, weeks, months, years. But more importantly, we focus on what happens during those time periods.

Famous physicist Albert Einstein developed the theory of relativity – and forced all of science, and therefore all of us, to view time differently. In one of his famous quotes he says, “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once3https://na.eventscloud.com/file_uploads/4823ce1c1eab3c5ce67a51e58451f214_schw_pap.pdf [scholarly engineering paper discussing precise time and its applications]”.

This makes sense to most of us. We need the ability to process what has happened and we need the ability to anticipate what will happen, without those events colliding with what is happening.

Judaism is no stranger to the concept of time either. The unpronounceable name of God יהוה (which we just read as ‘Adonai’) is first introduced to us as “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh 4Exodus 3:14”, which can translate to “I am that I am”.

However, it can mean “I was what I am and I am what I will be”—combing past, present, and future into our concept of God.

But even more than a formal name for our deity, Judaism and our rituals and holy days are spelled out explicitly with time.

We need look no further than this week’s parsha, Emor 5Emor, Lev 21:1-24:33, for our relationship to time. Starting with the shortest time frame, it tells us [Lev 23:2-3] “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the LORD, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions. On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion.”

From there, we learn about Passover, “in the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight,” and then we learn about the leading up to the holiday of Shavuot. From Passover to Shavuot, “you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days” (Lev 23:15-16).

This time period has since been called Sfirat ha’omer, “Counting the Omer.” 6Omer: a dry measurement, equal to about 2 quarts; used in agricultural times (like the Bible) for grain sacrifices to God or for taxation/tithing to the priestly class (who would give it to God and keep it for their own substance. As with most of our rituals, this one starts with a blessing, which reminds us that we’re engaging in this ritual because God commanded us to do so. Then we say: “Today is the thirtieth day of the Omer, which is four weeks and two days of the Omer.”

Yes, we redundantly state the days and then also the weeks. We do this counting for forty-nine days, or seven weeks.

Why? Think to your own life now. What is each day? What did you do today, for example, and how was it similar or separate from yesterday? Maybe you went to the grocery store or had food delivered. Maybe you called a friend or hung out on a video call with family.

What about the last seven days—has there been anything unique or remarkable about them? You might think about the day you made really good coffee cake versus the day you made key-lime pie (wait, was that just me?). You might recall the weather being warmer a few days ago and wondering where summer went today.

What about seven weeks ago? Now suddenly, the particulars of daily life have slowly melded together and a general sense of a “season” has take over.

Seven weeks ago, we were at the beginning of the North Carolina “shelter at home” order.

Seven weeks ago, we thought that the threat of coronavirus might pass as quickly as a bad flu season.

Seven weeks ago, we didn’t realize the devastation this pandemic would cause worldwide—physically, economically, mentally, emotionally.

Our scientists can give us projections for the next seven weeks. They can project (not predict) 7This is a great article that differentiates the terms, albeit related to weather science, but the terms hold. In sum: a prediction is a statement about an event that is likely to occur, no matter what they do. This is contrasted with a projection, which is a probabilistic statement that it is possible that something will happen in the future if certain conditions develop, creating if-this then-that statements.how much testing can happen or how many positives for COVID-19 there will be, or how many deaths might occur. They can project the kind of, and length of, an economic recession we might experience. They can project unemployment or bankruptcy numbers. Because what they do is count numbers – tangible, real data numbers.

But they cannot project what we will feel like. They cannot project our mental health. They cannot project the health, or lack thereof, of relationships. They cannot project our connection or engagement with religion or with God.

That’s where we come in. When we count our days, it’s the moments that actually count. It’s the relativity of time—that after the absence of a physical touch, perhaps hugs won’t have a time limit.

Perhaps we will remember this time by the actions we took, not the time spent in our homes. Perhaps we will measure this time in phone calls, in virtual connectivity, in mask-clad smiles.

We will remember the moments.
We will remember how we made someone else feel.
We will remember how we put good into the world.
We will remember the gratitude of the small pleasures, like smelling blossoming gardens, listening to the wind in the trees, seeing stocked fridges, hearing our neighbors’ laughter.

We will remember the gratitude about the important things, like our health, our safety, protecting the vulnerable, thriving in community, our relationships with each other.

This Shabbat, may we count what matters. May we make moments happen – moments that count. May we look to the future with contagious optimism. May we be grateful for all that is good in our lives. And may we, and the whole world, find the peace we so greatly seek.

Photo by Marco Verch

References   [ + ]

1. For reference, it takes 400 milliseconds per human eye blink; a hummingbird beats its wings in 5 milliseconds
2. Eon is about a billion years in astronomical time
3. https://na.eventscloud.com/file_uploads/4823ce1c1eab3c5ce67a51e58451f214_schw_pap.pdf [scholarly engineering paper discussing precise time and its applications]
4. Exodus 3:14
5. Emor, Lev 21:1-24:33
6. Omer: a dry measurement, equal to about 2 quarts; used in agricultural times (like the Bible) for grain sacrifices to God or for taxation/tithing to the priestly class (who would give it to God and keep it for their own substance.
7. This is a great article that differentiates the terms, albeit related to weather science, but the terms hold. In sum: a prediction is a statement about an event that is likely to occur, no matter what they do. This is contrasted with a projection, which is a probabilistic statement that it is possible that something will happen in the future if certain conditions develop, creating if-this then-that statements.