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Gary Rosenblatt

Counting on each other 

As we mark the days of The Omer, and the plight of the hostages, there are lofty and practical lessons to be learned.

On the Jewish calendar and in this moment, we are a people in semi-mourning – and the parallels between our spiritual past and political present are powerful.

Let me explain.

The current 49-day period between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot is known as The Omer, which has several meanings reflecting very different moods. In ancient times, it marked the beginning of the barley harvest, culminating in the ripening of wheat. (Omer is a measure of grain.)

Spiritually, The Omer signifies the days leading up to the most profound moment in Jewish history, God’s direct encounter with the Jewish people in giving us the Torah on Mount Sinai. According to a beautiful midrash, every Jewish soul – past, present and future – was present that day to receive the Torah.

To remind ourselves of the eager anticipation the Israelites had in marking the period of liberation from slavery in Egypt to revelation at Sinai, we recite a blessing each night of The Omer, citing the appropriate number.

But over the centuries, The Omer became associated with tragedy. According to the Talmud, it was during that seven-week period that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died of a plague, punished because they didn’t show respect to each other. And from ancient times until today, pogroms and other forms of violence were perpetrated against Jewish communities in Europe and Russia, particularly during the Passover/Easter season. As a result, the laws of mourning were applied and prayers added to commemorate the suffering of Jews from the time of the Crusades in the 12th century to the Nazis in the 20th century.

Are new kinot (elegies) being written in tears to mark the Simchat Torah massacre next Tisha B’Av?

As it happens, there is a numerical link between The Omer this year and the hostage situation. The counting of the Omer began 200 days after October 7, so the numbers of the Omer we are counting each night correspond to the last two numbers marking the hostages’ captivity. (For example, Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, will be the 233rd day of captivity.)

Participating in that ritual counting each night, I’m painfully aware that while the ancient tradition signifies the enthusiasm of looking forward to the end of the counting on the 49th day and the celebration of Shavuot, the hostage counting has no known end date. And the prospects of these tortured souls coming home alive grow dimmer every day. We ask ourselves, “what are we counting “toward?”

Over the last few months the remarkable solidarity Israelis had in their commitment to defeat Hamas, rescue the hostages, restore security to Israel’s south and north, and reassert their country’s deterrence over their enemies has dissipated precipitously. Those goals seem increasingly difficult and contradictory as the war grinds on. Faith in the government is at a new low. Political infighting has re-emerged. Israel’s image in the world has deteriorated, and even President Biden’s stalwart support for Israel’s war on Hamas has softened.

A major part of the problem is that Israel’s government appears to be stuck. The prime minister is being accused publicly by his fellow war cabinet members and military leaders of being unable or unwilling to make a critical decision: Either press on more aggressively with the war, despite US warnings, or focus instead on the return of the hostages, even if that means an end to the war, with Hamas able to claim victory.

Either path is dangerous, but the status quo of relative inertia as the pressures mount may be worse. The reality is sinking in that this war – for all of the bravery of the nation and its army and the correctness of defending the homeland from profoundly immoral terrorists – likely will not end well.

Adding to this mood of semi-mourning is the frightening, previously unimaginable level of antisemitism, globally and here in America, most notably on college campuses throughout the land.

But this combined sense of vulnerability for our brothers and sisters in Israel, and for ourselves in the Land of the Free, must not lead us into a moral paralysis, a withdrawal from the challenges at hand. We learn from The Omer of the tragic saga of Rabbi Akiva’s students that when we turn against each other we are doomed. And when, like the ancient Israelites in the desert, we have a positive goal to look forward to and strive for, we can endure hardships that strengthen our resolve.

Decisions need to be made from fortitude, not fear.

Each Shabbat morning we read from Psalm 90 in Tehillim: “Teach us rightly to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Numbering our days, literally, and with intention, at this season can help us deepen our prayers for the hostages and prepare us for the gift we each were granted as we stood long ago at the foot of Mount Sinai.

About the Author
Gary Rosenblatt is the former editor and publisher of The Jewish Week of New York. Follow him at garyrosenblatt.substack.com.
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