With its roots ostensibly in seasonal farming routines, the Jewish ritual of counting the Omer between Passover and Shavuot doesn’t at first seem ripe with contemporary significance. But I often remember Rabbi David Lapin’s comment that he is surprised at how previous generations found as much meaning in Jewish observances as they did, when the real importance of some of those practices became apparent only much later.
One thinks of Shabbat. In this Blackberry age, in which work otherwise intrudes upon “rest days” more insistently than anyone would have thought possible before e-mail, a divinely ordained Sabbath was never more crucial. The Omer, too, seems more timely than in past generations.
The Omer is counted each night, starting with the second Seder and counting up to 49, and is followed by Shavuot. Hence the latter festival’s English name, Pentecost, meaning the 50th day. When Jews were predominantly agriculturalists, there was practical relevance to this: The new grain crop couldn’t be eaten until the count was completed.
Of course there’s more to it than that. Passover recalls the exodus from Egypt, while Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah at Sinai seven weeks later. On Passover, the Jews received freedom from Egyptian slavery. On Shavuot, they received the revealed will of God, the meaning of their freedom.
That intermediate time was uncomfortable, and it is meant to be so now. Waiting is never fun, and the Omer period is made less so by mourning practices that have come to be attached to 33 of those 49 days.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik described Passover and the Omer as designating two separate orders of human experience. Passover is a time of miracles, of clear evidence of God’s caring providence. The Omer is a time when God’s presence is clouded. We are confused, wandering, waiting.
Jewish history seems to go in Passover/Omer cycles. Passover times are periods of inspiration, charisma, authenticity and authority. Then God is revealed clearly. Omer times are bereft of such qualities.
In that original period of 49 days leading up to the event at Sinai, it’s not as if the people lacked Torah. Jewish tradition is clear that the patriarch Abraham had intuited and reasoned his way to a grasp of the whole body of Jewish teaching, and taught it to his descendants. What then did the Jews get at Sinai that they didn’t have already?
They got the confirmation of hearing God’s voice thundering from the mountain in conversation with Moses. Before that, the information of Torah was available, but the confidence in it was lacking.
Today, Omer symptoms in the Jewish world are all around us. American Jews have more freedom than Diaspora Jews ever knew before — freedom to fulfill the role of the Kingdom of Priests (Exodus 19:6) that God spoke of to Moses shortly before the Sinai revelation, enlightening the world with a vision of Torah’s universal significance. Yet Jews seem uncertain about what to do with their freedom.
The content of Judaism that we present to others trivializes Torah. Whether advocating for Israel, or calling for a diminished role for religion in public life, it ranges from the necessary but ultimately parochial to the spurious and perverse. You would think we had nothing to teach.
Maybe the reason is that the Western world itself is in an age of secular ascendancy. Religious faith’s self-confidence is sapped by a pervasive pseudo-scientific materialism, by whose prestige Jews are overly intimidated. That goes equally, in their different ways, for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox.
On our community’s religious left, there is an automatic surrender to the tenets of secularism, a pathetic eagerness to impress the academic and media worlds. On the right, we see a willed blindness to its challenges, a fearfulness about engaging Torah’s opponents, as if Torah were too weak to withstand the confrontation.
The only comfort is that, as it was in the beginning, so it is now. Though American Jewry is in an Omer period, one trusts that its duration will be, like the ritualized Omer time, finite and soon over.