Counting the Omer, the Coronavirus, and ‘Waiting’

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We are now in the midst of another course of the counting of the Omer. This is the positive commandment to count the 49 days in between the festivals of Passover and Shavuos. During this time we count verbally how many days and weeks have passed since the 2nd day of Passover.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a classic commentary on the 613 commandments published anonymously in 13th century Spain, explains the “root” behind this commandment.

“Being that the main purpose of the Jewish people is to observe the Torah, and it was for this purpose that the world was created and the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt… it is proper to count the days from the second day of Passover until the day upon which we received the Torah to show our yearning towards that coveted day, as ‘a slave yearns for shade.”

The Chinuch is therefore positing, that one of the chief messages that is demonstrated by the counting of the Omer is our yearning towards the holiday of Shavuos when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The question which inevitably arises from this interpretation is that if we are yearning for Shavuos, why would we count the days and the weeks which have passed? Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to count how many days and weeks are left until the day that we are waiting for?

A similar question is often asked about the passage in Genesis (29, 20) which speaks of the seven years which our forefather Jacob worked for the hand of our matriarch Rachel. “And they were in his eyes like a mere few days in his love for her.” Now, wouldn’t one assume that those years would have gone by excruciatingly slowly due to “his love for her”?

A number of our great Rabbis have offered the following answer to the latter of the two questions. When a person is faced with the predicament of having to wait a period of time before being able to experience something which he or she is looking forward to, they naturally grow to resent that time, as it serves as nothing more than a barrier between them and their desire.  However, if the allotted “waiting” time is utilized for working towards their goal, it becomes infused with meaning. In such cases, each day becomes cherished and the time begins to fly.

When it became evident to Jacob that he would have to work for seven years in order to marry Rachel, he realized that Heaven was sending him a message. In order to be ready to enter the union through which the Jewish people would be built, he required seven years of spiritual work. Every day of those seven years thus represented for him the laying of another brick in the spiritual edifice of the Jewish nation. It was this mindset that turned the seven years into a mere “few days.”

Similarly, as we count the days of the Omer, we need to realize that we are on a spiritual journey towards the coveted day of Shavuos. We need to utilize these days as a “boot camp” of sorts, elevating ourselves each day and becoming more worthy of receiving the Torah. I believe that it was Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the great progenitor of the Mussar movement that suggested that on each day of the counting of the Omer one should work on developing another trait through which the Torah is acquired (see Pirkei Avos Chapter 6, Mishnah 6) and on the last day to review them all.

During these days of the Coronavirus we are all eagerly awaiting its end. We yearn for the days when we can go back to life as usual, when we can work, pray, and interact with each other as we used to. However, as believing Jews we must realize that being confined to isolation is not arbitrary, but is rather a message from Heaven. We are being told to somehow utilize this time of shutdown to prepare ourselves for the time of reopening.  We are being given a rare opportunity to develop new skills and work on our characters. Let us not succumb to the temptation of treating these days as empty barriers which impede our ability to produce. Rather, let us utilize every one of them and hopefully it will be over before we can even realize how much time has passed.

About the Author
I am a 32-year-old Torah scholar who has always loved to write. I have lived in Binghamton, New York (first seven years of my life), Toronto, Ontario (next 13 years), Jerusalem, Israel (next seven years) and again in Toronto (next five years). I am passionate about the history of our people and I love to hear from and interview members of the previous generation. I am also passionate about teaching Torah and spreading messages about healthy and productive approaches to living and human interaction.
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