One of the most beautiful ideas of Judaism is that we should strive to improve ourselves every day. This is the purpose of the High Holy Days, during which we take the time to examine our lives and consider what we have done wrong in the past year, and what we can do to become better people in the coming year.
I am sure it is obvious to all of you that we should work on personal character improvement every day, not just on Yom Kippur. There is a great teaching in “Pirke Avot” (Ethics of the Sages), in which Rabbi Eliezer said “Repent one day before you die.” His students were surprised, and they asked him “But how will we know when we will die?” To which Rabbi Eliezer said, “We do not know on which day we will die. Therefore, repent each day of your life.”
This is the meaning of “Counting the Omer.” According to the Torah, (Lev. 23:15-16) we count the days between Passover and Shavuot (49 days in all). An “Omer” refers to a sheaf of barley that was cut down and brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God in ancient days. In Israel, the spring growing season starts much earlier than in most of the United States. So after Passover, the barley, and other “first fruits” are beginning to be harvested. Our ancestors would then bring to the Temple an offering of an Omer of grain as a Thanksgivingoffering to God. This was a symbol of their gratitude to God for providing sustenance to them and their families and community.
Today, we consider this period as a time to count the days as a journey of spiritual growth and development from Pesach, or festival of freedom, to Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah.
Jewish tradition has always considered the Exodus from Egypt to be symbolic of our own personal progression from darkness into light. The ancient Israelites were liberated from slavery in Egypt for the purpose of establishing a peoplehood dedicated to worshipping God and building a society based on God’s teachings of ethics and justice. They were not simply freed in order to be free and to wander aimlessly in the wilderness. They were freed for a reason. Our tradition says the Israelites “traded the yoke of bondage for the yoke of Torah.”
We are commanded to consider the story of the Exodus as though we were there with our ancestors. We were slaves in Egypt. We were personally freed from Egypt. And the future of the Jewish people is in our hands.
We moved from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from degradation to salvation.
And the rest of the story has yet to unfold. This is why we count the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot. On Shavuot we celebrate God’s giving us the Torah, which represents the pinnacle of our relationship with God. Counting the days between Pesach, when we began the journey from slavery, to Shavuot, when Torah entered our lives, symbolizes the spiritual journey from degradation to a better world.
Counting each day as meaningful is an important way to live. The Psalmist tells us to “number our days that we may attain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90) What does it mean to “number our days?” When we reconcile ourselves to the brevity of life, I hope we will realize that we need to make every day count, to cherish our time, to resolve to use it well and to try to achieve something of lasting worth.
Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides (“Rambam”) the great medieval Jewish philosopher, theologian and spiritual leader taught us that the purpose of Torah is to help us perfect ourselves. Of course, he did not really believe any human could become perfect, but he did teach that we are able to improve our character, and to refine our sense of purpose in life. By trying to improve our moral principles, we can learn to treat others as we would like to be treated. This is the highest level of excellence in our character.
Judaism is filled with wisdom and guidance on how to improve our moral character. Improvement comes only through practice and through study. Practice comes through seeking connection with other people, working to improve relations with every person whose lives we touch.
This is what it means to “count our days,” to consider each day an opportunity to improve our character.
This is the real meaning of “counting the Omer.” Even though we do not literally take a sheaf of barley to the Temple in Jerusalem anymore, we still have an opportunity to say a blessing of gratitude to God each day. Let us be thankful each day for the gift of life, for love, and for the ability to work to improve ourselves and our world.
Let us treasure the time we have and resolve to use it well, counting each day as a spiritual journey toward blessing.
Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha-olam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al s’firat ha’omer. Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with sacred actions and enjoins us to count the omer.
Hayom chamishah asar yom, shehem shnei shavuot v’yom echad la-omer. Today is 15 days which are two weeks and one day of the Omer.
Wishing you a meaningful omer– Your RS Clergy