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Mar 28 2013

Counting the Omer, Counting the Milestones

By at 1:39 pm

pile of legos“Dear God, how many hours until bedtime?” I mutter from my prone position on the playroom floor as Legos bounce off of my head.

And how long have I been doing this, anyway? I’m home with the kids today, and my husband left for work at 7:30, so it’s been eight hours (not all of them involved being pummeled by Legos, but still). Now the Legos are hitting me in the arm as my toddler flings them into the air, his giggles piercing the torpid afternoon. Let’s see…if there are no major meltdowns, I can reasonably expect to get both kids into bed by 8:30, so I’ve got five more hours to go. Five more hours is doable, right? Five is a lot less than eight, so clearly I’ve reached the downhill part of my day. No problem, I think. I’m golden. I’m coasting. I’m… oh, for crying out loud, can’t they make Legos out of something softer?

As a mother of two young children, I do a lot of this kind of counting, the counting of time until some magical anticipated event occurs. Sometimes the counting comes from a place of need, of desperation, of the desire to be freed from some unpleasant stimulus or reality: How many hours until bedtime? How many more days of vacation until school starts again? How many more minutes until we land and I can cart these kvetchy kids off of this plane?

Sometimes the counting comes from a place of joyful anticipation, like the excitement I feel as my children’s birthdays approach. Intellectually, I know that the date on the calendar doesn’t really confer a change in status or stature upon my child. Nevertheless, I can’t help waxing nostalgic about these milestones as I scroll through my calendar and sudden realizations of the passing of time make me catch my breath: Next week she’ll be 4. Four! Can you believe it? Tomorrow will be 18 months since he was born. He’s not a baby anymore. Where has the time gone?

This week, the period of the Jewish year known as the Omer began on the second night of Passover. The Omer lasts for 49 days, culminating in the harvest festival of Shavuot. In ancient Israel, Jews would follow the Biblical commandment to bring the first sheaf (literally, omer) of the barley harvest to the priest, and then count 49 days until Shavuot, which celebrated the first fruits of the agricultural season and which is considered by the Sages to mark the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Since the destruction of the Temple, Jews observe the Omer period by counting each day of the Omer and reciting a blessing.

In the Middle Ages, the Omer became known as a time of mourning, stemming from the tradition that many of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva fell prey to a plague during this period. For that reason, many observant Jews mark the Omer by refraining from some activities traditionally associated with happiness or rejoicing, such as listening to music.

Despite this element of sadness, the Omer’s role as a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot links it to what are arguably the Jewish people’s most joyful events–our liberation from slavery and our receiving the gift of Divine revelation at Sinai. As we engage in our daily ritual of counting and blessing, we find ourselves tapping into one or both of these aspects of the Omer. There’s the shadowy side of the Omer, tinged with unease and impatience, where we’re checking off the days until we can once again enjoy a concert or get a haircut. Then there’s the joyful face of the Omer, the one we see as we wait for the redemption that began with the Exodus to be completed, until the giving of the Torah, renewed in every generation, reveals not only what we were redeemed from but what we were redeemed for.

These two sides of the Omer reflect the challenge that Jews face at this time of year, and that parents face every day. How do we channel in positive and productive ways the urge that we often feel to count and enumerate, to check off miles logged and milestones reached, to calm our restless minds by keeping up a running calculus of how much time has passed and how much time has yet to pass? How can we view each day as singular, as moving us toward a greater goal, and not feel like we are slogging our way through time, wearily putting one foot in front of another as the minutes tick on?

The Omer inspires and challenges us to view each day as unique. Yes, each night we count using the same formula, each night we hallow our counting with the same blessing, but the act of singling out each day, of declaring each day’s unique number and designation, invests each day of the Omer with significance. So, too, is each day of parenthood significant. Each day, growth occurs, in our children and in us. We can’t see the cells multiplying as their little bodies grow, and we can’t always recognize the ways in which an ordinary day’s challenges can increase our own capacity for patience, sharpen our sense of humor, and deepen our understanding of human nature. But all of this is happening, with every day that passes. Each day of the Omer draws us closer to Revelation, to the sacred anniversary of God’s communication to us, and each day of joy and frustration with our children guides us to revelations, large and small. Our task is to recognize the holy within the quotidian, to be open to the ways in which the movement of time moves us towards a greater good, towards our greater selves.

So tonight, I’ll be counting the Omer after I clean up the Legos. And when my children are a little older, I’ll teach them to count the Omer, too. We’ll count together, and give thanks, and look forward to a new day.

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