By Rabbi Abe Friedman
As Shabbat draws to a close this week, we will also reach the end of counting the omer — 49 days stretching from Passover to Shavuot in which we count each day as it begins at sunset.
The counting has a very specific format: We express the day’s count as both an ordinal number (44th) and also in terms of whole and partial weeks (six weeks and two days). Moreover, although we count the omer in part to mark time between Passover and Shavuot, we ordinarily count down to a big event, but in this case we count up.
Exploring the deeper significance of our counting the omer, Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin (Russia and Israel, 1885-1978) points out that we only bother to count things that are important to us. We count these days, therefore, because time itself has value: “Every minute is precious, insofar as it goes, and will not return. What has passed in vain can no longer be brought back. And therefore the time must be counted and numbered” (La-Torah u-L’Moadim, Emor #4).
This simple truth about time is also the inherent tragedy of human lives. While we can do a lot to make amends and correct past mistakes, we can never truly recover or regain those moments. For better or for worse, the past has gone forever.
I’m reminded of the song “If We Were Vampires” by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit — one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking love songs I have ever heard. Attempting to get at the essence of what it means to love, Isbell observes:
If we were vampires and death was a joke
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand
Maybe time running out is a gift …
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone
Maybe we’ll get 40 years together
But one day I’ll be gone
Or one day you’ll be gone
(In case you didn’t know, vampires are immortal.) We don’t have forever; time moves inexorably forward, each minute receding into the past as the next arrives. In order to make the most of the time we have, we need to hold that awareness in real time — and counting the days helps us focus on the time we have now.
And yet, as Zevin observes dryly, “There is counting, and then there is counting.” Using a shop as a metaphor, he points out that although the cashier and the store owner both count the store’s revenues, they do so for very different reasons. The clerk counts because it is his job to make sure the money in the till matches the receipts. If it all lines up, he is satisfied — whether it shows profit or loss.
The owner has a different set of considerations. She, too, cares if the cash matches the receipts, but she also has a deep personal stake in the bottom line. Her attention goes beyond the mechanical act of counting and looks for the meaning behind the numbers. How is the business doing? Where do the trends point? Are we succeeding or falling behind?
This is the trap we all fall into at some point: marking time, going through the motions, without examining why and to what end. Our choices about how we spend our time are literally investments in our lives.
We should ideally count our days the way the shop owner counts her revenues — precious resources that we hope will leave us with more than we put in.
Counting the omer can help us learn to treat our days as the precious jewels they are. We count up — rather than down — because we want to focus on the present step rather than fixating on the end point. We mark the accumulation of days into weeks to remember how our time adds up.
It’s not enough to notice the day on its own; we need to consider where it is heading — just like the shopkeeper who notes each day’s profit in order to see larger trends.
Rabbi Abe Friedman is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.