Egged And Existentialism

Poor Egged Bus Lines cannot seem to get a break. According to the Times of Israel, Israel’s largest bus company announced last week that it “has ceased its ‘Omer tracker’ notification service after critics accused it of employing its digital signage equipment to share ‘irrelevant’ information.” You may be wondering what an Omer tracker is, so some explanation is in order. The Torah commanded the Israelites to count off forty nine days, beginning from the time that they offered the sheaves of new barley grain from the winter harvest to God. Omer is the Hebrew word for a sheaf of bundled grain. This counting commenced on the second day of Passover and continued until right before the Shavuot holiday. On Shavuot, a new offering of grain was made to God to express gratitude for the harvest and to demonstrate that it all comes from God. Though we no longer have a Temple or a priesthood before which to make these offerings, Halakhah (Jewish law) long ago interpreted the Torah to include the obligation to count each day orally in every generation; for instance, today is the 19th day, which makes it two weeks and five days of the counting of the Omer. Over the years, creative people have devised ways for remembering the Omer count in order to help people, like myself, who forget to do so, as well as to count the exact day, when we remember to count at all. Putting the daily Omer count on the e-marquees of Israeli buses, as one among many messages, is certainly an interesting way to enrich the Jewish content of Israeli life, something that Israeli civil society has always done well. Now it is no more.

This latest public relations nightmare for the bus company comes less than a year after it was successfully sued for nearly $400,000 over pollution in its Jerusalem Central Bus Station. Egged’s woes in the past year have also included being forced to pull a Jerusalem bus ad campaign for a college prep company that featured imaginary space aliens, due to concerns about offended sensibilities of members of the ultra-Orthodox community. The company had recently decided to pull all Jerusalem bus ads featuring any human likeness, male, female, alien or avatar, so as to not arouse the prickly ire of anyone riding their buses anywhere in the holy city, at any time. Now, apparently, even words –the great alternatives to icons and images in Jewish religious tradition – do not make the cut for non-offensive blandness. It appears that, this time around, the folks offended by the Omer announcements are not members of the religious community but of the secular public, who have their own notions of relevance and propriety. Clearly, Egged is skittish about alienating or incensing people with something that comes off feeling too religious; thus, Omer tracker is no longer on Israeli buses. So much for this latest nonsensical example of the ongoing religious-secular divide in Israel.

Though by no means a shattering blow to religion or peaceful co-existence in Israel, cancelling the Omer tracker on Egged buses is unfortunate. Apart from removing a small piece of Jewish culture from public view, Egged has denied the Israeli public, and by extension all of us, a way in which to sanctify the passage of time and to contemplate the transience of existence. Perhaps I am grossly overstating my point. This is after all merely electronic signage for the Omer period which religious Jews likely do not need and secular Jews likely do not care about. Further, given the potential dangers of their daily lives, Israelis do not need another reminder of how fleeting life can be. Still, there is great spiritual and poetic value in remembering to count the Omer as one moves about day by day from place to place. “E-Omer” might have made a daily difference to people.

This is because counting the Omer is more than a ritual, it is a ritualized drama about being alive. In ancient times, with a little skill and a lot of luck, a farmer would be able to tease a grain crop from the ground after waiting patiently through the growing season of a rainy winter; this crop was his source of sustenance and a symbol of his prowess at growing new things. No sooner would the crops begin to grow than the farmer would cut them down and hand some of them to God, Source and Master of all life and death. A forty nine day period would commence, during which the farmer and all others in the community would literally count their days, until they came to a second celebration before God with a new offering of grain.

The rabbis of the Talmud later overlaid this forty nine day agricultural journey with a second narrative. They taught that the forty nine days are a reenactment of our journey from Passover, liberation from physical slavery, to Shavuot, the time when we received the Torah and became free spiritually. Yet even without that second explanation of the forty nine day period, counting the Omer provides us an opportunity to think more deeply about life, death, and the meaning of being human.

For, we can imagine ourselves as those sheaves of grain that emerge from the earth. We are almost coaxed into this life, only to encounter the fragility and mortality inherent in living. How easy it is for us to feel plucked up or to be cut down. Yet, despite this physical reality, we continue to grow and hopefully provide nourishment for each other and the world. Existence being what it is, our days are truly numbered. However, unlike grain stalks that mindlessly wave in the wind, we have the ability to mindfully number our days, to consciously fill them with meaningful activity and relationships. Living becomes more than existence when we, each in our own ways, willingly offer ourselves to God by making our time on this earth count.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.