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For the last several years, I have been taking my Judaism more seriously. But I realized today that I didn’t really know what that meant. There are still many more practices, rituals, and observances that I don’t follow than those I do. I seem to spend a certain amount of time beating up on myself for not doing more. I don’t seem to help myself by trying to “figure out” the reasons for my limitations; I’m assured by some who are Orthodox that even they struggle with feeling they are “doing enough.” But at least I can say that there are certain practices that I follow with regularity, that move me deeply, nurture my relationships, and bring me closer to G-d. Observing the Sabbath by lighting candles Friday night, staying off the computer and my phone, studying Torah Saturday morning, and reciting the Amidah is embedded in my observance, as well as other daily practices during the week.
But another practice I have followed regularly occurs at this time of the year: Counting the Omer. Let me tell you a little about this observance:
From the second night of Passover until the day before the holiday of Shavuot, the Jewish people engage in a unique mitzvah called Sefirat HaOmer (counting of the Omer). The Torah commands us that during this time each year we count seven complete weeks, for a total of 49 days. At the end of the seven-week period we celebrate Shavuot, which means ‘weeks.’
During the times of the Holy Temple, at the beginning of the Omer count and on the following holiday of Shavuot, special grain offerings were brought. These offerings were waved in different directions, similar to how the lulav is waved during the holiday of Sukkot, to demonstrate G‑d Almighty’s all-encompassing presence.
Why do we count these days? We learn several reasons. The foremost is that the count demonstrates our thrill for the impending occasion of receiving the Torah, celebrated on Shavuot. Just as a child often counts the days until the end of school or an upcoming family vacation, we count the days to show our excitement at again receiving the Torah (as we do in fact receive the Torah in a renewed sense every year).
Why was I drawn to observe the Counting of the Omer? The Jews leaving Egypt had reached one of their lowest levels of practice and observance. We had been imbued with the pagan traditions of Egypt by the time we left. But we had the chance to transform ourselves, to find our way forward, to cleanse ourselves of the primitive society and restore our relationship with G-d. It is said that from the day we left Egypt until we received the Torah, we were redeemed. We gradually, day-by-day, in spite of our difficulties and frustrations on the way, had found our way back to G-d and were blessed with receiving the Torah.
I relate to this story because in a sense, when I left Zen Buddhism, I found my way back to Judaism. It has been a complicated journey: married to a gentile, without a Jewish community to practice with, with a lack of understanding of my religion. But somehow I found my way, through my relationship with @iwe and his family, through my own study, through my little Teshuvah group that meets monthly, through my self-reflection, and through my efforts to grow closer to G-d.
The practice of Counting the Omer gives me the opportunity to specially devote myself to spend 49 days trying to elevate myself. When I recite the prayers in the evening, I imagine that I am climbing a stairway, to renewal and understanding. During the day, I remind myself to act in a way that contributes to the lives of others or connects to G-d. It may only be a few moments, but it’s a kind of dedication that follows me up that stairway, that elevates me, that sends the message to G-d that I want to be near Him. Maybe I choose a moment to be extra patient with someone. Or to pay special attention when I make a bereavement call. Or express my gratitude to someone who has said something kind to me. Or to express kindness to others.
Counting the Omer gives me a chance to dedicate time to growing and improving.
And for now, the Exodus is still my journey, my path to redemption.Published in