Blink and you might have missed the reports: a few weeks ago, the Church of England confirmed that it had moved many valuables to the Tower of London for safekeeping while churches stand empty. For centuries, the Tower has housed the Crown Jewels and become both a stronghold and a major tourist attraction – but not all of the Tower of London’s treasures glitter in its vaults: some of them are on the walls of its inner towers.
During the Protestant-Catholic turmoil of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Beauchamp Tower hosted many high-ranking religious and political prisoners. Some stayed for days, others for years, many leaving only for their execution: until then, they could – at their own expense – furnish the tower with creature comforts, correspond with family, and be visited by tailors and even barbers. Today, the treasures these prisoners left behind are protected from tourists, but it isn’t tapestries or rich clothing behind the clear glass: it’s graffiti etched into the stone walls.
Some carved elaborate coats of arms or visual puns on their names; some simply chiselled dates and their names, or the weeks, days and hours since their arrival, while they waited to discover how long they would remain locked away. Each graffito is a precious individual record of time passing by a person who felt powerless and removed from events in the outside world: a feeling that may be uncomfortably familiar at the moment.
While few of us have stone walls around us and even fewer have the skills or patience to make intricate carvings in them, many of us may feel a little like prisoners on an indefinite sentence, even if we are blessed with comfortable furnishings and good internet connections. (Lockdown haircuts are another story entirely…) We too may be counting days and weeks. Yet not everyone counting may have reached the same total: some of us are counting not from countrywide lockdown but since we began our own self-isolation; others are counting the days that a loved one has been in hospital or worse, since a funeral. Perhaps initially we counted the hours; then at some point even the days become too many and we shift to counting the weeks or months.
Each of these tallies is like a personal version of the daily Omer counting that we’re currently midway through. Its origins lie in Parashat Emor: unlike all other festivals, Torah does not give a specific calendar date for Shavuot, just an instruction to count seven complete weeks, then on the fiftieth day bring an offering of new grain, making a festive day. It sounds simple, yet because Leviticus 23:15 only says to begin on ‘the day after the Sabbath,’ we’re left with a question: which Sabbath? When does the counting begin?
Different groups had different answers, based on how they understood ‘the Sabbath’: Samaritans held that counting began on the Sunday after Pesach, Karaites the Sunday within Pesach, and Ethiopian Jews the day after Pesach ends. The Pharisees, and so the Rabbinic tradition that most modern Jews have inherited, interpreted ‘the Sabbath’ to mean the first day of Pesach (via Babylonian Talmud Menahot 65b), a time of rest from work; but even the Rabbis who shaped the halachah in favour of beginning to count from the second day of Pesach, ‘the day after the Sabbath,’ knew it was not the only possibility.
In public, much coronavirus counting marks time since the government-ordered lockdown began, or since the UK’s first confirmed case, both of which are useful communal reference points. In private, many of us are marking time since a different moment that reflects our personal experience. Whatever our starting point, we have a choice to make about how our counting shapes our experience of this time: do we count to wish away the days, or could it encourage us to value each day?
Traditionally we count each day of the Omer with a blessing, sanctifying the passage of time: the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot are not an empty period to gloss over, but a series of days each with the potential for holiness. Perhaps our challenge today is to bring a blessing to each day of our own counting, despite our feelings of powerlessness, frustration and grief. Some of us will create the equivalent of those elaborately carved coats of arms, filling our days with impressive lockdown projects; for others, calling a friend or writing in a journal may be blessing enough for a day.
Ultimately we hope the passage of time will also bring a softening of our pain, or a strengthening of our ability to hold it. Until then, may our counting of the days remind us how precious each day is and encourage us to make each day count.
Eleanor Davis LBC student rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.