Sheldon Paul Stone
A bit more Chesed wouldn't hurt!

Omer, Rosh Chodesh and The Dog Days of War

The dualities of both illuminate our complex emotions as this war drags on

Priests announced Rosh Chodesh by blowing trumpets from the temple walls.

Rarely have words from the ancient Tehilim (Psalms) said at Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) sounded as if I’d written them today, to express my confused feelings in the dog days of this war.

And maybe, whether you are secular or religious, but touched by this war, these words from Psalm 118 resonate with you too?

“From my  straits I called to the Lord”….“What will Man do to me?”… “I will look on those that hate me”…. “Better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man ….or in princes” 

  “All the nations surrounded me…like bees.. a fire of thorns”……  “The voice of salvation is in the tents of the righteous”…….   “I shall not die but live”

  “Open to me the gates of righteousness”….  “You have answered me and become my salvation” (vv 19,21)

There is a raw and relatable duality in this Psalm. On the one hand, there is despair at both the hatred of our enemies and the judgment of men and their rulers. On the other hand, there is hope and trust, that somehow we can find the right thing to do, and will come through, but that maybe only God can help us.

Rosh Chodesh itself has a duality. It is both a mini-festival and a day to atone. So, on the one hand, I celebrate (if that is the right word) and wonder at the extraordinary way Israel’s civil society has united to support the soldiers, the hostages’ families and the hundreds of thousands of Northern & Southern border evacuees. I’m grimly thankful that we have an army to defend ourselves against an enemy that wants to wipe us out. On the other hand, I worry we may have made mistakes, that we will later regret or repent, whether they be military, diplomatic, legal or strategic.

Duality stretches you, forcing your mind and feelings to be in two spaces at one time. That tension can be creative. Or it can be agony. What makes this Rosh Chodesh different from others, is that its’ duality is ratcheted up, as we are midway through counting the Omer, the 49 days between the traditional barley and wheat harvests, starting at Pesach and ending on the festival of Shavuot; and the Omer itself has not just one duality but two!

The first is that we are offered a choice of two ways to count (1), ending the count with either the words ‘In the Omer’ (Ba-omer) or ‘To the Omer’ (La-omer). What’s the difference?

When we say, ‘Ba-Omer (In the Omer),’  we focus on the here and now. It harks back to the practice of the farmers in biblical Israel as they counted off each day’s hard labour, grateful that the weather had held and the harvest was coming in.

On the other hand, when we say, “La-Omer (To the Omer)”, we focus on the future, our destination, the direction of travel, going towards the end of the count, after which, on the fiftieth day, we  make a ‘new offering” (minchah chadasha) of first-ripe wheat. It also reminds us that we journeyed on Pesach from Egypt, where we became a people by virtue of sharing a fate of common suffering, to arrive at Mount Sinai where, 50 days later, on Shavuot, we became a people also by virtue of a shared vision, mission and destiny, through receiving the Torah.

Each day in Israel, newspapers, TV, Radio and Podcasts count the days of the war and of the hostages’ captivity. Businesses’ and charities’ web sites carry a timer counting the seconds. That is ‘Ba-Omer’ counting of  the individual days of common suffering, the hard labour of our troops, the torture of our hostages, and the displacement of our evacuees. But is there a “La-Omer” counting we can perform this year? People are asking, ‘where are we going, what is the future vision to which we count up?

The second duality of the Omer derives from its status as a period of mourning for the twenty-four thousand of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples who died during the rebellion against Rome, lead by Bar Kochba, whom Rabbi Akiva thought was the Mashiach (Messiah). Two reasons are given for the deaths. One is that they were caused by plague as punishment for disrespecting each other. The other is that the Romans killed them as they were also soldiers and leaders in Bar Kochba’s army.

Does this second historical duality resonate with today? Disrespect, internal division, Messianism, and, if you like to stretch a parallel, problems with  superpowers! Indeed, I heard this shabbat, the sad claim that there were a disproportionate number of religious soldiers killed by the enemy in this war. As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) says, “Nothing new under the sun.”

This war, even in galut (exile), is hardly bearable but, as a leading pilot said to me, “Mamshichim (we go on), we do what we have to”.

I’ve no firm answers to its complexities.

I’ve only got hopes. That it will end. That the hostages return. That there’s a deal. That Hamas does not survive to rule and terrorize both Gazans and Israelis again.

I can only express these hopes, and those of the various versions of visions for a peaceful future.

All I can do is daven for wisdom to be granted to ourselves, our leaders and those of other nations and that the words of another psalm I say each day come true.

“Those that turn aside to their crooked ways, the Lord will lead away with the workers of iniquity. Peace be upon Israel.”

It gives me some comfort, for you never know, it might work!


1. We can count, for example, as follows, “Today is the 32nd day, that is four weeks and four days in the Omer’ (Ba-Omer)” or, as is more usual, “Today is the 32nd day, that is four weeks and four days to the Omer” (La-Omer)”

About the Author
Sheldon is a 67 year old, London-born, Meikal Orthodox retired Teaching Hospital Consultant Physician for Older People and Stroke. His research in infection control and behavioural science helped introduce bed-side alcohol hand-rub. Now an Advisor to World Uyghur Congress, London Office for STOPUYGHURGENOCIDE campaign. Wife consultant physician. Two daughters, one son. University or graduated. One cat. Spurs season ticket holder (except shabbat!). Aliyah one day (PG!).
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