On Sunday we will mark the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer which commenced on the second night of Pesach and will conclude on the 49th day with the festival of Shavuot. This strange custom of counting sheaves has become popular again in our time. Some synagogues bring the requisite number of flowers or sheaves to Shabbat services as they count the days. By Shavuot the bimah is already heavily adorned with flora which is a custom in and of itself. Some have omer counters at home or in their wallets or on their electronic diaries. Each day becomes a step along a journey as we count this special springtime. There is the tradition of reading one chapter of Pirke Avot each week between Pesach and Shavuot and a sixth chapter was added in order for this to work! There is also the complex notion of assigning each week and each day to a mystical emanation of God’s attributes in the kabbalistic tradition. Each day has a combination of attributes and next Sunday will be hod sh’b’hod – beauty within beauty!
The 33rd day is Lag B’omer; the day that tradition holds as a marker in this counting cycle due to the purported lifting of a plague amongst the disciples of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century. In what became a semi-mourning period in Jewish history, the time of the Omer traditionally was not used for celebrations such as weddings but these restrictions were lifted on this 33rd day as a mark of joy and happiness. How appropriate to have a wedding on the day which the kabbalists designated as ‘beauty within beauty’!
So the 33rd day is a stop in the ongoing counting much like the momentary pause of an old clock as it reaches 12 and prepares to go round again. On our journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from Egypt to Sinai, from slavery to freedom we symbolically walk away from the things that oppress us and towards release of harmful habits, destructive behaviours, self-defeat or our own oppressions. The Midrash suggests the analogy of a God as a cook stirring up the appropriate winds and rains for the harvest to thrive. God then asks, ‘if I am your cook ripening your corn, will you not let me taste of your broth so that I may know what you require, whether dew or rain?’(Leviticus Rabbah28:3). Just as the corn is growing so we too are growing and reflecting on what we need. What is it that we need to be more fully grown as human beings?
Peter Senge, the management guru, in his book ‘Presence’ indicates that in order to “let go”, we have to look back and pause on what we have learned from our past experiences. By pausing, we come into a state of ‘presence’ and in that state, we allow something else to “let come”. New insights, new hopes, new ambitions and a new way of looking at the reality around us can be part of this process.
If the rituals of our tradition, ancient and modern, can assist us to do so, then they will have fulfilled their function. Counting of the Omer may seem one of those strange anachronistic Jewish folkways but it may just be another way to understand ourselves and our journeys through life arriving at Shavuot in order to let Torah come to us in a new and inspired way. That truly would be beauty within beauty!
Rabbi Dr Michael Shire
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.