The following is a short thought in honor of Shabbat, Sefirat HaOmer and Shavuot. For a more extensive essay on themes of Sefirat HaOmer / Shavuot, please click here. For an article on this week’s Parshah, Bechukotai, please click here.
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?
In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?
—Opening lyrics to “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent
We now find ourselves in the midst of a period on the Jewish calendar known as sefiras ha’omer, “the counting of the omer.” For each of the forty-nine days that separate the holiday of Pesach from that of Shavuos (coming up at the end of next week!), we are instructed to “count”—with an official formula—our place within this period: “today is thirty-seven days, which are five weeks and two days, of the omer;” “today is thirty-eight days, which are five weeks and three days, of the omer;” etc.
And the question that inevitably occurs to us at some point within this process is: Why? After all, we aren’t instructed to count the days between Sukkos and Pesach; or between Shavuos and Rosh Hashanah; or between Channukah and Purim. So why are we instructed to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos?
Actually, sefiras ha’omer is not the only “counting” mitzvah we find in the Torah—though it is probably the most well-known. There are in fact three times in the Torah that Hashem commands individuals to engage in the act of sefirah. These are:
- omer: the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos (Lev. 23.15)—וספרתם לכם.
- yovel: the seven cycles of shemittah (“sabbatical”) years (Lev. 25:8)—וספרת לך.
- shiva neki’im: the seven “clean days” of one who became ritually impure (Lev. 15:13, 28)—וספר לו/וספרה לה.
The seven weeks of the omer represent the period that Bnei Yisrael had to wait between their leaving of Egypt (“on the forty-ninth level of spiritual impurity,” according to our sages) and their receiving of the Torah, at the height of holiness. The seven cycles of shemittah represent the period that a Hebrew slave who cannot afford to buy his own freedom must wait before he is set free, and the period that one who fell on dire straits and was therefore compelled to sell his ancestral plot of land must wait, if he cannot purchase it back himself, before it reverts by law back to his family’s ownership. The seven days of shiva neki’im represent the period that a woman or man who became ritually impure must wait before she can be fully reintegrated into her family and community.
So in a sense, then, these are all periods of transition—periods of movement from where I am now to where I want to be. They are each, in other words, a time of anticipation: a time in which our sights are set to some far off ideal whose great significance to us leaves us fixating upon it in all the moments leading up to its realization. In fact, it is possible to get so caught up in all the good things which we are striving towards and which await us at the end of “the next seven days,” “seven weeks” or “seven sabbaticals”—our family and familial functions; the opportunities to fortify our faith; our “fields,” our “freedom,” and our financial fortunes generally—that we begin to treat the interim as a time which we must simply “get through” on route to where we are “really headed.” Whether it’s in our avodas Hashem (service of Hashem) or our bein adam l’chaveiro (interpersonal relationships) or in the pursuit of our parnassah (livelihood), focusing too intently on the next siyyum (completing a book of Torah), the next simcha (wedding, Bar-Mitzvah, etc.) or the next promotion carries the risk of letting all that time it takes to get there pass us by without our noticing or appreciating it.
As if to alert us to the existence of those “moments in the middle,” the Torah instructs us to literally count them—and, thereby, tasks us with making them count. Conceived of in these terms, the mitzvah of sefirah is essentially a mitzvah of mindfulness; of consciousness; of forcing us to take our eyes off the destination long enough to remember that it is over the course of the journey that the majority of our lives actually transpire, and to realize that we therefore owe it to ourselves and to our loved ones to be spiritually and emotionally present for each phase of the process no less than for the purpose.
This is an exercise that we can engage in yearlong. Each day after the shacharis prayer it is customary to introduce the shir shel yom, the “song of the day,” by formally articulating: “היום יום ראשון בשבת”—“this is the first day towards Shabbos;” “היום יום שני בשבת”—“this is the second day towards Shabbos.” Technically, this custom developed as a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of “זכור את יום השבת לקדשו,” of remembering the Shabbos by speaking about it throughout the week. Yet there is also a way in which the practice encourages us to remember about all of that time between Shabboses: to avoid the unfortunate instinct of “Livin’ for the Weekend,” in the words that chart-topping single, and to make ourselves available instead to the sanctity latent within each and every day.