Let’s play a word game: take the root word ‘count’ and think of as many verb and noun permutations based on it.
Count, Counting, Accountable, Accountant, Recount, Count in, Count off, Count Upon, Count out.
If we look at the definition of ‘count’, it gets even more interesting:
- to check over, to determine the total number; add up; enumerate:
- to reckon up; calculate; compute.
- to list or name the numerals up to:
- to include in a reckoning; take into account:.
- to reckon to the credit of another; ascribe; impute.
- to consider or regard:
The beauty of the etymology of ‘count’ is that it works in Hebrew too. If we look at the root wprd of ‘safar’ – samech – peh/feh – reish, we get an equally long list of associations: Book, scroll, to tell, to recount, to count, accounting books, records.
Both words have a broader understanding of recording, taking note and being accountable; of keeping track, narrative, passing on knowledge and being transparent and transformative.
In the weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot, we count the Omer. In the book of Leviticus (parashat Emor), we are given this commandment: ‘Sefirat ha-Omer’. The Torah initially refers to an ‘omer’, as a weight measurement of the harvest that is waved in front of the Kohen, the priest. A few verses later, however, an extra dimension is added) (Lev. 23:15): ‘U’sefartem lachem mimcharat haShabbat miyom havi’echem et omer hatenufah shevah shabbatot temimot tehayenah’ – ‘And you shall count for yourselves, from the morning of the Sabbath, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving, seven complete weeks’.
From the Torah’s perspective, the Omer counting is what connects Pesach to Shavu’ot, as we gather in the harvest and thank God for our bounty.
In the Rabbinic imagination, however, this arcane agricultural rite took on a dimension of personal transformation.
After the destruction of the Temple, we could no longer bring the actual grain offering, so we symbolically counted the 50 days between Pesach and Shavu’ot instead. Counting the Omer was seen as a spiritual discipline to help us prepare for Shavu’ot, where we recommit as individuals and as a community to accepting the covenant. Counting the Omer, then became about so much more: about acknowledging our own redemption, our path from slavery to freedom and that freedom does not merely mean an unbridled celebration of permissiveness but the freedom to accept responsibility and here’s the pun again, accountability.
To this day, there are many accompaniments to count the Omer, including an app from the American Reform Movement, which gives pithy readings for reflecting during this 50 day period.
Throughout the ages, mystical and spiritual interpretations were attached to the practice. As Rabbi DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch (a Chassidic Rabbi and confidante of the Baal Shem Tov) taught:
“The word sefirah, "counting", also means "illumination". On each of the forty-nine days of the Sefirat HaOmer ("Counting of the Omer"), we refine, develop, and illuminate another of the forty-nine traits of our soul.”
How is this all relevant to our lives as contemporary Jews?
The rhythms of the Jewish calendar acknowledge the ebb and flow of our own lives; sometimes we are in seasons of busyness and sometimes there is time to reflect. Sometimes, there is time for mourning and remembrance, like Yom haShoah or Yom Yerushalaim, but thankfully more often, there is cause for celebration and festivities.
We live within the rhythms of the calendar just like we live within the rhythms of our own lives.But our calendar also holds us accountable and charges us with a mission to build up our own souls and our communities. Judaism is not meant to leave us unaffected; Judaism gives us meaning and ignites in us passion and challenges us to channel this energy constructively.
All of us who are involved in Jewish community life are held accountable as we march towards Shavu’ot, celebrating the Giving of the Torah. We too, as a community know cycles of ebb and flow. We face blessings as well as challenges; we must continually seek to energise ourselves by digging deep into our motivation to be part of community and to reconnect to our sense of Jewish covenant.
We’re all here for a reason – none of us have to figuratively ‘stand at Sinai’. But we are here because we care. We are Jewish because in a lonely and often difficult world, Judaism provides us with a spiritual home. We do it because of a sense of history. We do it for our ancestors and for our children. We do it because being part of community – praying, learning, volunteering, donating, building, governing, arguing, schmoozing - is worthwhile, even if we still feel stuck in Mitzrayim, Egypt.
Let us continue this holy work, ranging from small detail to great responsibility. And let us stay connected and accountable; in honest, authentic relationship and with full dedication to building the sacred sanctuary of community.
As Psalm 90:12 teaches us: ‘Limnot ken hodah, v’navi levav chochmah’ - ‘Let us number our days and acquire a heart of wisdom’. I wish all of us a transformative Omer period as we count down to renew our vows to the God of Israel.
Chag Shavu’ot sameach!
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credits: Folkert Gorter