The Jewish People are in a time of fearful crisis. Huge demonstrations are boiling in the streets of Israel, and counter protests are being planned. Political differences are exploiting and magnifying tensions that are inherent to the Jewish people along religious, cultural, and ethnic lines, world-views, and the vision of what – and who – Israel is and must become. The quaking along the fault-lines of Israeli society are of unprecedented magnitude, shaking up the balance between the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of democracy and rattling the ‘rules of the game’ that have governed Israel until now. Israel’s divisions and vulnerabilities are on display to our enemies, and the fractures are weakening our nation and threaten to pull the greatest enterprise of the Jewish People for the last 2,000 years apart at the seams, God forbid.
At the same time, a tremendous sense of unity is growing stronger among a majority of Israelis. Axioms of democracy are shouted from the protest stages, while in-depth discussions both formal and impromptu, are held-between neighbors and acquaintances, fill the papers and discussion halls, schools, and conference centers. Israel’s Declaration of Independence is being studied and celebrated for the civic values expressed as foundational to the State of Israel, as if the house of Israel and the soul of the nation that dwells within that house rest upon its structure.
In remarkably ironic timing, negotiations are currently underway while Israel’s Knesset is on holiday break to try to resolve differences and find some consensus. This period of time, the season of ‘Counting the Omer’ between Passover and Shavuot is considered a time of mourning and trepidation, an anxious time. Rabbi Akiba’s students, some 24,000 of them, all died of a mysterious plague during this time. The Talmud speculates that what killed them was their failure to show a sense of mutual respect for one another. Some suggest that the students died during the failed Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans. That revolt, of course, was predicated on the Roman conquest of Judea in 70 CE, whose disastrous results were induced by disunity and sinat chinam, causeless hatred amongst the Jewish People one for another.
Perhaps Counting the Omer this year is a mitzvah of greatest importance. We are told in the Torah that “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days.” (Leviticus 23:15-16)
The Torah does not specify why bothering to count these 49 days is worthwhile, or of interest, or what purpose it achieves. Jewish tradition suggests that, having been freed from slavery in Egypt, we were overwhelmed – and frightened – by the multitude of possibilities and responsibilities that freedom holds. We wanted guidance, instruction, order midst chaos, and purpose. Therefore, we count the days from the Exodus to the reception of Torah on Mt. Sinai which instructed us in what we are supposed to do with our newfound freedom.
The Jewish mystical tradition embraced the Counting of the Omer as a spiritual endeavor, a process of creating intimate connection between the human and divine realms, between the individual and the aspects of holiness. We count the days, it seems, in order to learn better how to make our days count.
This year, let’s have the focus of our counting be on what unites us as the Jewish People, not on what divides us. Let us count the blessings of ahavat chinam – causeless love for one another, rather than the catastrophic curses that sinat chinam will bring. Let’s count the ways our tradition teaches us to have and show mutual respect, how to value and cultivate shalom bayit – peace in our house, the home of the Jewish People in Israel and abroad. Let us count the possibilities and responsibilities – together – that make a only democratic Israel precisely a Jewish Israel. Let’s count on Jewish Peoplehood, making unity of the Jewish People in Israel and around the world, count.
Last year, we had some 50 members of this community and friends Count the Omer. Please join us again, and all new “Counters” are welcome too!! Here’s how it works:
Beginning with the second night of Passover, on Thursday evening 4.26.23, you will receive an email at 8:00pm each night with a short meditation on themes of Jewish Peoplehood and Unity, source quotes about Judaism’s values of law and justice, love of Israel’s People, Land, and Torah, and about the values of mutual respect at the democratic foundation of Jewish worldviews. The daily email will serve to remind you to Count the Omer, and will give you the appropriate blessing and day count for you to fulfill what feels like a critically important mitzvah to take on this year when the future of Israel, the future of the Jewish People, and the future of Judaism itself feels like it is hanging in the balance.
Please respond to this email at email@example.com to register for this year’s Count.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz