Counting the Omer: A Transformative Reminder
During the days of Passover, Jews from all corners of the world connect to one another through the ancient story of Hebrew manumission from the cruel Pharaoh. The story is familiar, so no need to recount it here. But for all the beauty of the Passover Seder, it is but a precursor to a most extraordinary part of the Hebrew calendar: the counting of the Omer.
The significance of the Omer is manifold: it’s the thread that connects Pesach to Shavuot, thus interconnecting liberation with actualization, collective narrative with individual journey, and natural rights with Divine law. From a social justice perspective, I believe we need to take what we know from our experiences and intuitions (yetziat mitzryim) and codify it into an enterprise of everlasting revelation (Shavuot). Counting the Omer, for me, is an act of solidifying this bond between what we know and what we must do. It’s a move from epistemological and ontological reality towards a more normative, pragmatic necessity.
The Rabbis taught that four aspects of our lives need chizuk (consistent inspiration and strengthening to keep alive): Torah study, good deeds, prayer, and one’s profession (Berakhot 32b). We must guard ourselves not to become overly concerned with physical comforts. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (The Maharal) taught that the more one indulges one’s body, the more bodily one becomes, and that obstructs and inhibits connection to the spiritual realm. (Da’at Torah I, 279-92). To remain intellectually attuned, focused on kindness, spiritually awake, and actively contributing to society, we need strengthening. The mitzvah of counting the Omer comes at the right time to remind us to strengthen our capacities.
The most preeminent Jewish scriptural commentators famously ask why Jews wait until night two of Pesach to start counting the Omer if moral freedom began on the first night of leaving Egypt (Leviticus 23:15). Night one was solely about miraculous Divine intervention. We start to count on the second night to show that we must now take human initiative and that it is our human responsibility that must increase (which is why we count up each night, rather than count down to the revelation). Freedom begins with God’s intervention, but is only sustained and perpetuated through human initiative of freedom as we build up.
Counting the Omer is a practical mitzvah that is about counting each day, appreciating each moment, and keeping track of our growth. Consider creating a 49-step plan for something you want to work on in your life. Count each day of the Omer and track your daily growth over the seven weeks to monitor your development on this task. Live each day as if encountering God on the mountaintop, for this is the time to reflect within yourself to search for the true meaning of your life.
Once each year at the Pesach Seder, we are afforded the chance to embrace the notion that control of the world is way beyond us, allowing us marvel at the same miracles our ancestors witnessed countless generations ago. But all other days of the year, we have to inure ourselves in recognizing that only by increasing our moral responsibility can we begin to actualize our talents in creating a more just, equitable world.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of seven books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”