The Omer: Giving Birth
*This is a guest post by Rabbi Cardozo’s daughter, Nechama Shulamit Atlas Lopes Cardozo.
“When the Israelites left Egypt, Moses said to Him: ‘You promised that we would receive the Torah; so where is your Torah?’ [God] said: ‘You still have to wait 50 days.’ They immediately began counting each day, and then God said: “I promise you will be privileged to count the Omer.” (Midrash)
As a woman anticipates giving birth, so the people of Israel await the redemption. The labour pains start with ten plagues. Toward the end, the people are confined to their homes: “You shall not leave your houses until morning.” They await the birth. All is ready: “girded loins, shoes on your feet, and staff in hand.” Then, just as a fetus is pushed from its mother’s womb, the Israelites passed through their front doors that were smeared with blood (“And they shall take from the blood and put it on the two side-posts and on the lintel”), as through a birth canal, until they pass through the Red Sea and arrive at a safe haven.
A baby is born; a nation is born.
And just as with a baby, God takes care of everything: manna, water, clouds of glory, and a pillar of fire. The baby grows and matures; the nation becomes a treasured people – “For you have chosen us from among all the nations” – and the marriage covenant is about to take place at Sinai.
Just like a bride before her wedding, the Israelites prepare and sanctify themselves: “I remember you, the kindness of your youth, the love of your betrothal, how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a barren land.”
Three days of restriction, purification and longing; total devotion expressed in “We shall do and we shall hear”; all in preparation for the marriage bond. “And I will betroth you to Me forever…in justice and law; in grace and mercy; and in faith. And you shall know God.
The days that link the newborn to the bride are the days of counting the Omer. It is a time of transition from infancy and complete attachment to the mother. The baby gradually grows, standing on its own two feet, eventually detaching from the mother and develop own desire and become an adult.
This is a time when we change from being passive and receiving, to active and giving.
On Passover we experience the miraculous deliverance by God’s hand. “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One saves us from their hand.” It is a time to go back to the belief that everything comes from the Lord.
On Shavuot – the Holiday of the Giving of the Torah – we experience our relationship with God by choice, borne of maturity, of deciding “Na’aseh ve-nishma” – we will do and we will hear.
In our everyday life as well, we constantly move between making choices and taking responsibility for our actions and their results, on one hand, and believing that the hand of God directs every aspect of our lives, on the other hand.
We received the Torah following a process of 50 days in which we grew as a nation. Every year on Shavuot, as we relive our personal receiving of the Torah, we must prepare by counting the days until the moment that we receive it. Shavuot does not stand alone, but rather indicates the end of a process. Just as a baby grows gradually, so do we need to grow spiritually every day that we count the Omer.
Nechama Atlas is the daughter of Rabbi Cardozo and presently the Rabanit in Beth Knesseth Yeshurun in Manchester, England. The essay was inspired by observations by Dr. Chana Pinchasi of Jerusalem.