And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD” (Vayikra 23:15-16).
One of the things I love about the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha-Omer (Counting the Omer) is it’s beautiful simplicity. Some mitzvot require significant financial investment to purchase costumes or buy the prettiest etrog, while others countless hours of cleaning and cooking, and many of them can only be fulfilled through understanding endless minutiae passed down over thousands of years. But counting the Omer has a simple charge: count 49 days. (I like my Judaism simple and uncomplicated).
However, one of the dangers of a mitzvah as straightforward as counting the Omer is becoming so focused on counting that we lose sight of why we are counting, in the first place. In our rabbinic tradition, counting the Omer is a binary mitzvah: Either we remember to count day every day for seven weeks, or we don’t. At the same time, only a person with a sufficiently meaningful worldview about Jewish practice is likely to take the time to count the Omer, no matter how simple the mitzvah may be. The simplicity of the mitzvah only matters if performance of the mitzvah is tied to a more transcendent narrative.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understood this challenge when he published Horeb: A Philosophy of Jewish Law and Observances, his attempt to impart the meaning of ancient Jewish practices in an increasingly secular world. For Rabbi Hirsch, the Israelites counted the Omer to recognize that the transition from slavery to freedom was not the end of their journey, but the beginning. He writes:
You have celebrated the Fear of your Liberation and remembered before your God your independence, living in your land and eating its produce. You have therefore reached your freedom and the benefits of independence, the very goals all nations aspire to. You, however, are but on the threshold of your calling as a nation, and have started counting the days to the attainment of another goal…When others cease to count, you begin your counting” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, in Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra, Vol. 2, 431).
Following the ten plagues and the parting of the Sea of Reeds, one might be tempted to believe that the Israelites were done with the heavy lifting required to be God’s chosen people, yet leaving Egypt was the start of something more powerful. As such, Rabbi Hirsch reminds us that counting the Omer is our opportunity to translate the simple, daily work of divine service into a larger, transcendent narrative. In our Judaism and in our lives, God challenges us to remember that the facts are not enough; they must always be placed into a prism of meaning that moves people to action.
Consider how this charge affects our synagogues. Yes, a synagogue provides many essential services, including a daily minyan, social action projects, learning opportunities, pastoral care, and so on. But none of that explains why the synagogue is important. More importantly, at a time when the fastest growing religious group in the United States are “nones,” synagogues will not find a compelling spiritual message by recounting the synagogue services these individuals already rejected by choosing no synagogue at all.
Instead, real leadership always involves guiding institutions on a horizontal axis, reminding them of the need to keep doing good and doing it well, while translating those daily actions to others on a vertical axis, a climb towards sanctification that frames the story of our institutions. Bill George argues in True North that this is the essence of leadership, the ability to translate the daily work of leadership into a loftier story. He writes:
The difference with authentic leaders lies in the way they frame their stories. Their life stories provide the context for their lives, and through them they find their passion and inspiration to make an impact in the world. Novelist John Barth once said, “The story of your life is not your life. It is your story.” In other words, it is your story that matters, not the facts of your life. Our life stories are like permanent tapes playing in our heads. Over and over, we replay the events and interactions with people that are important to our lives, attempting to make sense of them and using them to find our place in the world” (14-15).
Great leaders know how to supervise staff, manage budgets, raise money, create great programming, and countless other actions that allow synagogues to thrive. And while it may be true that these are the things Jews gain from thriving synagogues, the facts are not enough, because facts to do not compel a paradigm change. Only if a powerful narrative can do that, and if leaders pay insufficient attention to that charge, communities run the risk of running out of energy to do the daily work because it feels like it matters to no one.
This Shavuot, we need to recommit ourselves to telling our story, to constructing a worldview of meaning and transcendence that can redefine what synagogues mean in the twenty-first century. Yes, if our synagogues and institutions were lost to the world, we would lose so much, yet unless we can inspire as to why the big picture matters, no facts will move others towards action. Thus, we need to keep counting and telling our story, the only way to ensure that we can remind others why every community counts.