It is hard not to be moved when hearing the story of Heidi Bean, who was auditioning for the New England Orchestra in 2012. After her long awaited and desired audition, Heidi got into a Boston cab late at night with her cherished flute, worth a staggering $10,000. Shortly after exiting the cab at 3:30 AM, she knew something was very wrong. Heidi had left her flute in the cab. She frantically called the cab company, who was not able to locate the flute. She needed her flute urgently for the second part of her audition which would take place the next day, yet no one could locate her flute. Heidi did not get the long-desired position and no longer had her flute. Broken and devastated, Heidi went on to keep the job she had in a musical club at the time, saving money for years, until she was finally able to buy a new flute.
Almost a decade later, in February 2021, a man walked into Virtuosity Musical Instruments store in Boston with a flute to sell. Something struck the store representative as suspicious, and one thing led to the other. Heidi Bean, now married and known by her marriage name Heidi Slyker, received a phone call from the Boston police, who had managed to recover the lost flute.
Reunited with her beloved lost flute, Heidi was thrilled and excited, yet she realized that nothing would return her life to the way it could have been. She would not get another chance to audition with the New England Philharmonic Orchestra, and even if she did, no one would return to her those years she had lost.
Ms. Skyler’s story moved millions worldwide, resonating with many, amplifying the feelings many of us might have about lost moments in our own lives. It also helps us understand one of the most difficult points about the mitzvah of counting the Omer. As the Torah finishes describing the holiday of Passover and the offerings that come with it before it introduces us to the holiday of Shavuot and its rituals, the Torah commands us:
“And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the Omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.” (Vayikra 23)
Counting of the Omer has both a mathematical and spiritual function; it is what enables us to know when the holiday of Shavuot is, and it allows us to engage in our own spiritual elevation, transforming us from simply being the people who were liberated from Egypt, the people who received God’s words at Sinai. Unlike other similar commandments in the Torah such as the counting for the Shemitah and the Yovel—the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee—in which communal representatives do the counting as part of their job leading the Beit Din, counting of the Omer is a responsibility each and every one of us has.
Many, if not most, Midlevel commentaries maintain that counting of the Omer is a spiritual journey we take in anticipation of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. A question raised by the Sefer Hachinuch, the famous and classic work written anonymously in 13th century Barcelona, bothers many. If indeed we count the days of the Omer to show our anticipation for receiving of the Torah on Shavuot, why do we “count up”? Why not count down as we do to every event we are excited about. Why do we count one day on the first of the Omer, and forty-nine days on the last day of the Omer, rather than count forty-nine days when we begin the count on the second day of Passover, and one day on the last day we count as we arrive at the holiday of Shavuot?
Yet with all of its simplicity and relatability, the story of Heidi’s flute explains why it is that we count the days of the Omer “up,” why it is that instead of counting down the days to Shavuot, we count first one, then two, then three, and so on. The lesson of Heidi’s flute is that nothing can return a day that was lost. Even though the Boston police were able to return her the flute nine years later, no one will return Heidi her next day audition with the New England Philharmonic Orchestra or the life she might have had, had she joined then. We must seize every day that God gives us. Sure, the days we count from the second day of Passover to the day we received the Torah on Shavuot show our anticipation and excitement, yet this is not just about anticipation; it is an opportunity for preparation. We utilize every day of the Omer to enhance our spirituality, character, and preparedness so that we can be more deserving when indeed we do receive the Torah.
It is for this reason that different communities engage in different customs during the days of the Omer—all focusing on personal improvement. Whether it is the study of Pirkei Avot, focusing on the 49 traits required to thrive in our Torah learning, or other forms of learning and charity, we all must use the days of the Omer and make sure every single day counts. This approach of using the days of the Omer—not only as anticipation but also as preparation—is reflected in the holy book of the Zohar (Emor, 166), which states that if a person did not properly count the Omer, cannot properly receive the Torah on Shavuot.
A fascinating parable in the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 3,2) reflects a similar idea. The Midrash states:
“Rabbi Yitzchak said: the people of Israel were deserving of receiving the Torah right upon leaving Egypt with no delay, yet God said: “the glory of my has not arrived been restored yet from their toiling in brick and mortar.”. This is analogous to a king whose son was sick and was told “let your son go away to his school.” The king said: “the glory of my son has not been reported. Let my son eat and drink for three months [so that he get stronger] and then go away for his studies.” So too, God said: “the strength and glow of my children have not been restored from their slavering and laboring with bricks and mortar, and I give them the Torah right away?! Let my children relax for two or three months, and I will then give them the Torah”.
As we count the Omer and advance towards Shavuot, let us remember the double role of the Omer: we are excited for the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, yet we are also preparing ourselves with every day that goes by. This is why we “count-up” the Omer rather than count down. Like Heidi Slyker and her lost flute, we know that nothing can return to us lost time. Every day is a blessing we must seize to improve ourselves and to help others. If we make an effort to make the most of every day, we can be sure arriving at our Shavuot destination of receiving the Torah will be an arrival not only full of meaning at the end but was the road that made all the difference.