Passover is the beginning of a journey of the Jewish people towards the ultimate gift that we received only after (because of!?) slavery and our liberation through the narrows of Egypt. That gift is the Torah. We commemorate receiving the Torah 50 days after Passover on Shavuot, which falls this year on May 27. The 50 days are called Sefirat Ha’Omer, or the Counting of the Omer, since sheaves (omer) of wheat were brought to the Temple during this time after Pesach.
Shavuot is a joyous and beautiful holiday, traditionally spent studying all night as if to greet the Torah like a long-lost lover. But the days of the Omer, leading up to Shavuot, are a bit different, and have certain rules: back in Talmudic days, 24,000 students of the great Rabbi Akiba died during the Omer period, and so this period has taken on some prominent restrictions to mark those deaths. These restrictions include no weddings, no haircuts or shaving, and no instrumental music. That means no radio, and no music with anything but voices for over a month (the music restriction lifts, for many, after 33 days on Lag B’Omer which falls on May 10 this year).
That’s right, people: for 49 days, it’s pretty much all Maccabeats, all the time, and thank goodness for their new CD! (Yes, though their CDs may sound like they have instruments, they don’t; all that percussion and synthesizer-sounding stuff is vocally-produced!)
I have a hunch you may be feeling like one of the four children (wise, wicked, simple, and the one who doesn’t know what to ask) of the Passover Haggadah right about now regarding the restrictions of the Omer.
The wise child might ask: What does this mean to us?
The “prickly” child (our euphemism for “wicked”) asks: What does this mean to you?
The simple child asks: What is this stuff?
The child who doesn’t know what to ask is the one who holds disregard, disinterest, or disbelief.
Wise child, I say this to you: Torah living grabs hold of your whole life and squeezes it tight. It digs into the recesses of your mind and peeks into your closets and turns your soul inside out. Adhering to thousands of years of tradition connects us to a global and timeless Jewish community. Every single blessed detail means something and holds potential for hugely significant and transformative experiences for all of us.
Prickly child, it’s your turn: The restrictions of the Omer mean that we may be the People of the Book, but we never go “by the book.” Rather, the Book is enmeshed with the rhythms of the world (one of my favorite Rabbis I have studied, Rabbi Akiva Tatz, says Pesach doesn’t happen because it’s spring. Rather, spring happens because it’s Pesach!). Even though we want to be blissfully strolling from Passover into Shavuot, historically, we have to stop and incorporate history (the good and the bad) and how it becomes part of our story as it is happening. I want to be part of a community that keeps to this embracing of history and sociology and meaning. That’s what it means to me.
Simple child: These 49 days mean we temper our routines and we practice self-discipline. It means I miss out on all of the instrumental CDs I love and all the radio stations I browse in the car. It means I got my haircut last week. But at least the Maccabeats are a cappella, right!?
For those of you who choose to disregard, or are disinterested, or are in disbelief that anyone would, in this modern day and age–and a Hollywood actress no less!–participate in such restrictions with devotion, I say this to you: There is power in doing new things. I never thought I would be able to go 49 days with no music, but I can do it. Just like I never imagined I could fast for 25 hours, but I figured that out and it has become inspiring and profound to do so. I don’t want to be the same person at 36 that I was at 26. I want to believe I can change, and I can. But I can’t change unless I do the work to make it happen. And I can’t love my Torah until I engage it and its myriad laws, rules, and yes, restrictions.
Every day of the Omer is bringing us closer and closer to the level of spiritual and mystical preparedness we had to reach in order to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Baby steps get us there. One at a time. Haltingly, delicately, and sometimes fiercely.
Wise, prickly, simple, or disinterested: Something is calling to you. Shall we engage?