There is a practice in Judaism called Sefirat HaOmer or counting of the Omer. It takes place in the 49 days between the second night of Pesach and the onset of Shavuot. It is simply a count. You mark each day by saying just that “Today is the X day of the Omer which makes X number of days and weeks”. An Omer is a measure of wheat and this counting of the Omer is an ancient ritual that Jews for thousands of years have undertaken in preparation for Shavuot.
There are other customs during this period of time that Jews observe that are similar rituals to mourning that harken back to a terrible plague amongst students and scholars thousands of years ago. People often forgo getting married and may even refrain from getting haircuts; men may choose not to shave.
But the counting part can be most transformational because it is a forced marking of the days. Each night right before Aleinu at the evening service you count. Now you can count on your own but traditionally, Sefira (counting) happens at the end of the evening service. And of course being Judaism there are rules and regulations about counting with a blessing and without a blessing and the time to count. But in general, counting happens right before the Aleinu prayer. Which interestingly enough is the prayer directly before the Kaddish Yotam (the prayer said by mourners).
So what is the connection? Why at this point of the service and why delay the Mourner’s Kaddish? What lesson can we derive for this ritual that delays the end of a service and interrupts a rhythm that mourners often find comforting in its predictability and sameness?
If you have ever been to an evening service, by the time Aleinu comes people are often beginning to ready themselves to leave for the night; jackets go on and some people even begin to head towards the exit. Often only the mourners are fully focused preparing to perform their duty. But the Omer breaks that natural rhythm; it causes you to stop—and make note of the day. Someone says “Yesterday was X day” and you are forced to remember what number day it was and thus what number it will be. There is a blessing and sometimes a meditation before or after but the act is to count.
It is more than a simple counting. The ritual forces you to mark the day. And the formula of saying “Yesterday was X day” forces you to think about the day past and the day to come. But more than marking of the passage of time anticipating the day to come—counting the Omer becomes a singular moment in which you must experience the present. And that moment is the penultimate moment before a mourner prepares to say the Kaddish. The Omer serves as a reminder of how precious and fleeting time is and its passage is inexorable. But it is also a wake up call to recognize the present.
Kaddish is the reaffirmation of our enduring legacy and the majesty of G-d but the Omer is a reminder that our time to experience that majesty is limited. It is a most Jewish juxtaposition—life is glorious but also fleeting. Our days are numbered, but while we are blessed to be here on this earth, we should take the time to magnify and sanctify our creator in the name of those who no longer can.
This might be a lesson we wish to extend beyond the Omer. Often we speed through the day and days become weeks and weeks months and life is endured or tolerated but seldom do we celebrate joy or mark our sorrow. We click LIKE or follow a friend and then move on. We experience grief but yearn to throw off its yoke. We are in a constant search “to be our best self” but do we ever truly contemplate or relish or even mourn? So maybe the lesson of the Omer is to take time to cherish our memories and look toward the future but most importantly fully experience the present.