Sudoku, The Simpsons, Sefirah, and Servitude

My wife is the math and statistics person in our house. She fills in the numbers of a Sudoku challenge with the joy of a word-drunk poet contemplating the lines of a puzzling sonnet. I am a “word guy.” I dissect the techniques and meanings of a poem with the exhilaration of a math whiz exploring pieces of the puzzle of an equation. I know my place in this world. I have never tried to help my kids with their trigonometry or calculus homework, and I refuse to look at the family check register. I did really well on the verbal and reading portion of the standardized graduate school entrance exam, but quite poorly on the math and logic sections. At my rabbinical school admissions interview, the dean of the school asked me, “Do you think that these low scores reflect your ability to do graduate level work?” I said, “No.” On the one hand, what did he expect me to say? On the other hand, I figured that if someone ever asked me how the mathematical idea of approaching the limit of zero can help us to understand God’s infinitude, I could just use the standard clergy diversion: “These things are too mysterious for us to understand.”

Sefirah, known more accurately as Sefirat Ha-Omer, the forty nine day period of counting between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, is the latest of my ongoing mathematical mental blocks. Every year I begin this counting period (Sefirah literally means “counting” in Hebrew) with great alacrity and with faith that I will complete the entire forty nine day cycle. I think, how hard or unpleasant can such a religious obligation be? One first says a simple blessing thanking God for the commandment to count. Each new counting day begins, Jewishly enough, the night before, and the actual recitation is worded in an interesting manner. For instance, we recite “Today marks twelve days, which equal one week and five days of the counting of the Omer.” Omer is a reference to the measure of new barley grain brought as an offering of thanks to God in the ancient Temple at the beginning of the Spring harvest and the forty nine day period. This recitation constitutes the entire nightly ritual. Jewish mystics and moralists enriched Sefirah’s appeal with all types of teachings about Sefirah as a reminder of one’s requisite personal journey from physical freedom (Passover and the Exodus) to spiritual freedom (Shavuot and the giving of the Torah). Modern entrepreneurs have marketed Sefirah counters to facilitate the counting process, including one of my favorites, based upon the popular show, “The Simpsons.” It features a Sefirah calendar with little pictures of, you guessed it, Homer Simpson, America’s favorite dysfunctional narcissist, who helps you to “count the Homer.”

Despite all of these nifty tools for Omer-made-easy, I generally stop counting consistently by the second week. My excuse is that, as the hapless victim of sleepiness, sloth, or a slip of memory, by the time night falls I remember that I have forgotten to count for the outgoing day, which fades away irretrievably into the next day. Maybe I should just embrace my failure for the deeper reality that it might reflect, thus revealing one important reason for struggling to fulfill this ritual. The Torah hints at this reason in the book of Leviticus when it tells us, U-s’fartem lakhem. The common, colloquial meaning of this Hebrew phrase is “You shall count off seven weeks.” This is an injunction to mark a seven week period starting at the end of the first day of Passover, after the offering of the first sheaf of new barley grain which leads gradually to the offering of the fully ripened grain on Shavuot. However, this phrase literally means, “And you shall count for yourselves seven complete weeks.” This alludes suggestively to the fact that our counting ritual isn’t merely about remembering our ancestors’ harvest ceremonies. Counting is something we do for ourselves, for our own spiritual benefit. Ideally, our forty nine day count allows us to contemplate the interplay between physical and spiritual liberation. It is harder to fully embrace the spiritual and moral dignity offered by the Torah without the necessary dignity of political freedom and human rights. However, my failure to keep up with the count also forces me, and all of us, to contemplate the darker flip side of this liberation equation. Our physical freedom alone is necessary but not sufficient for achieving the full human dignity that is spiritual freedom. We may be politically free, but all that means is that we are still free to choose to not be truly free: to behave in ways that reflect our servitude to our worst impulses, nastiest traits, and bad habits. Yet even in the midst of stumbling through this counting process, with all of our failures, we still count in God’s eyes. We will still stand at Mount Sinai once again on Shavuot to receive the Torah, which after all was not given to angels but to people. How often have we attempted to complete our life journey symbolized by this counting ritual, only to thwart ourselves, then be forgiven by God who loves us all?

By now, we’ve lost 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.