We are in the midst of the mitzva of Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller of Neve Yerushalayim, the very fine women’s institute that Karen attended in Jerusalem, notes that the commandment to count the Omer is “one of the more curious prescriptions of the Torah”. We are told to count the 49 days between Pesach – the day of the Exodus from Egypt, until Shavuot – the day the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai.
Easy enough. Especially since the simple fact of the matter is that the number of days between these two historical events never changes. It’s always the same 49 days. This being the case, the counting cannot be seen as a practical exercise to determine an event – namely when Shavuot will take place – but must be an effort in which the process, in and of itself, is meaningful. We are not trying to figure out when Shavuot will be, we know that. So there must be something inherently significant to counting.
As Rebbetzin Heller goes on to point out, the word for “number” in Hebrew is מספר mispar. Its root is closely related to the word סיפור sipur which means “story”. These sort of things are not accidents and they are part and parcel of the fact that the Hebrew language is referred to as Lashon HaKodesh, a Holy language. The relationship between these two words isn’t arbitrary and they are deeply linked to one another.
Number and Story – one creates the other. It is a number of events that make up a story. All stories have similar elements: There is a beginning in which the characters are introduced and the basic premises and scenes are set, a middle in which some sort of conflict and challenge takes place, and an end in which there is a resolution, tying it all together.
This trajectory creates a story, as opposed to a random anthology of events which doesn’t tell us anything but is merely a blog. Chaotic musings with no linear path. Think Facebook. There are no stories on Facebook, just snippets and slivers of supposed happy people attending something “amazing” with no context, rhyme or reason as to how they got there or where it is taking them.
When we step aside from social media for a moment, we come to realize that our lives flow by so quickly that we often lose sight of our own stories. The blending of today into tomorrow into the next day, week, month and year is subtle enough for us to lose awareness of our beginnings, middles and ends. We go about doing things day in and day out and pay little attention to the slight changes along the way, and of the stories being written… or that we are in the midst of writing. We lose track of time and its accompanying narrative.
Sefirat HaOmer remedies this since the very act of counting teaches us to be mindful of the larger picture and to not lose sight of the overall perspective in the daily grind of detail. Counting gives us the ability to open our hearts and minds to hear and see the drama in our own lives. To listen to our own stories.
This takes place on two different levels. Nationally, the Israelites became defined as a people during those initial crucial days between Pesach and Shavuot. Freedom was granted on Pesach, but a true national definition really didn’t take shape until the end of their 49-day trek when they received the Torah from God at Sinai. It was an epic event that transformed the Jewish people and all of mankind forever.
And yet even then, as it was taking place, some of the people could not fathom the significance of their moment in history as they became lost in the petty details of unexciting food and other inconsequential issues, complaining the whole way to Sinai. The greatest story in the history of the world was being written and yet some were so distracted that they couldn’t appreciate that they were its main characters.
And how often do we do the same on a personal level? The greatest drama could be unfolding before our eyes, but there are always those who are so petty and small-minded that they completely miss it. Or they are too busy recording it on their cell phones. I went to a wedding once and during the ceremony the father of the groom whipped out his phone, held it up high and recorded. No joke. His own son’s wedding and he couldn’t be in the moment to enjoy it. How sad.
We need to count our days and look for the story in our own lives, for to not do so leads to a sense of meaninglessness; that life is arbitrary with no ultimate goal or accomplishments. If we do not count, if we do not note the details as part of a collective whole, then we lose sight of our direction, of our achievements and we just end up spinning our wheels.
It is for this reason that when one counts the Omer the custom is not to count just the days but to note the number of weeks as well. “Today is the 46th day which is six weeks and four days of the Omer.” We denote both the day and the larger system of which it is part. Only when we have this double vision – of the here and now plus the wider picture of which it is a part – only then can we see the drama taking place in our lives.
King David wrote, “Teach us to count our days in order that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 91:12). It is only when we count our days that we are able to gain wisdom, meaning and direction in our lives. In essence, counting our days allows us to witness God’s hand as He co-authors with us the incredible drama in our individual lives, as well as the saga of the Jewish nation, in the most powerful stories ever told.
Someone once said that every person’s life is a novel. They key is to take the time and effort to step away, find a quiet place, and to read your own story.
Written in these walls are the stories that I can’t explain
I leave my heart open but it stays right here empty for days…
It seems to me that when I die these words will be written on my stone
And I’ll be gone, gone tonight
The ground beneath my feet is open wide
The way that I been holding on too tight
With nothing in between
The story of my life