Our tradition instructs us: From the day you bring the sheaf of wave-offering, you shall keep count until seven full weeks have taken place. This is the time of counting. From the second night of Passover until Shavuot—the time of receiving the Torah, we count, day after day for 49 days. Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer.
The Omer is not one of the most widely observed Jewish practices, yet I think it is one of the most profound and meaningful. There is something about taking some time in the darkness of the evening to mark the passing of time that resonates powerfully. It is an opportunity to bring a consciousness to our transition from our being avdei Pharoah—servants of Pharoah—to avdei Hashem —servants of a Higher Power.
But there is one element of the Omer that I have always found a bit perplexing, a bit uninspiring. The Omer, or at least the first 2/3 of the counting, is customarily a time for communal mourning. Marriages are not performed. Many observant Jews do not shave or do not cut their hair. The origins of this association are obscure but mostly attributed to the death of thousands of disciples of Rabbi Akiba (a second century rabbi) who died in a plague during the Omer in Talmudic times. Observance of mourning during the Omer was cemented after other tragedies befell the Jewish people during this time in more recent Jewish history, i.e. the Crusades, pogroms.
In my mind, I never fully understood how this time of introspection and fruitful, personal reflection could be considered a sad or dark time. Kal v’homer—all the more so—Jews already have a widely observed period of communal mourning, the 3 weeks which lead up to Tisha Ba’av (the remembrance of the destruction of the temple).
Don’t we as a people have enough set time to commemorate suffering? During the Omer, why focus on suffering when we are supposed to be moving to higher spiritual places as we move closer to the receiving of the torah?
Now, as a Reconstructionist, I seek to look at Jewish customs that may feel a little out of date or less relevant and try to infuse them with new meaning instead of simply throwing them aside. In that spirit, I have been wondering if there is a way to reconstruct this period of mourning during the Omer. I asked myself: What does this custom really mean? What was its original purpose? Can it be relevant to our lives today?
Looking further into the story of Rabbi Akiba, I discovered that according to tradition, the reason the students suffered from the plague was because they could not find peaceful ways of solving their disputes. In that vein, it seems that the mourning rituals engage in during the Omer are not simply intended to evoke commiseration with suffering, rather we mourn in order to heighten the awareness of our responsibility to seek just and peaceful solutions to conflict.
I cannot think of a more perfect message for our time.
While we are counting the Omer, we have other numbers to count. 4: four years plus one month since the invasion of Iraq. 3296: the umber of American lives lost since the start of the war. 67,243: the estimated number of Iraqi civilian deaths since the start of the war. 416 billion and counting: the taxpayer dollars funding the war.
Last month, at the fourth anniversary of the war, I got back in touch with my anger and frustration. I attended a rally and a vigil in Clark Park. I sent emails to my elected representatives. And then, a few days later, I went back to doing my everyday routine. I listen to stories of bombings and to NPR’s analysis while getting ready in the morning, while cooking dinner. That righteous indignation quieted.
Because of the nature of this conflict and because most of us do not know people serving in Iraq, it is easy to disconnect. Even those who disagree with my position on the war recognize that many of us sit comfortably while a war is being fought in our name.
What have we as individuals, ourselves sacrificed for this war? What has this community sacrificed? Acknowledging that I am not directly sacrificing, not directly affected, I am left wondering: how can we keep this reality of war before us? How can we maintain the fire that keeps us deeply engaged or in action?
In light of these questions and in light of the story of Rabbi Akiba’s students who died because they could not reach peace, I propose that we reconstruct this period of mourning during the Omer to be a period of mourning for the lives lost, the dreams lost, the hope lost as a result of this war.
I want us to use this period of intentionality and reflection consciously and well. And just as some don’t shave or cut their hair to externalize their mourning, we too should have rituals that remind us of the harsh reality in Iraq and God willing, stir us to action.
Last Friday night, I lit an additional candle alongside our Shabbat candles. At my congregation, Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia, I'm proposing that we take on this custom when we are together. It will be a zecher, a remembrance of the lives that have been lost as a result of this war.
And I suggest we each find our own way of engaging in the coming weeks. Maybe instead of simply reading or listening to a news story, we take the time to really process what is going on and to educate ourselves about the conflict. Maybe we take a moment of silence at some point each day. Maybe we commit to calling our elected representatives each day or each week of the Omer to continue to remind them to find a way to bring our troops safely and speedily home.
Let’s make this time of counting the days a time of intention and a time of action.
After all, the ikar—the essence—of the Omer period is to teach that there is a seamless line between Passover and Shavuot. We are not free for freedom’s sake. We are free to be responsible. We are free so we can be called to a Higher order—to the moral and ethical obligations of Torah. We are called to the pursuit of justice and peace.