Counting the Omer: A Time of Hope and Mourning

By Rabbi Renée Bauer

We often count our days. We count down the days until we are fully vaccinated, until the new president takes office, until the clocks change, and the days are longer. This type of countdown has been one way that many of us have coped with the seemingly endless, similar, and uncertain days of the pandemic. When things shut down a year ago, one big challenge we had was not knowing when things would change, when we could safely see our loved ones again, when our lives would get back to ‘normal.’ We found things to look forward to as a way to create hope.

Vaccinations are happening, spring is budding, and many of the things to which we counted down are beginning to become real. But life is not returning to what it was before. And maybe we reach this time and do not feel the relief for which we had hoped. The grief we feel about the loved one we lost does not dissipate. The vaccine cannot bring them back. The reunion with family we have not been able to visit is not as we had imagined. New frailty that has set in and reconnecting after this hard year is not seamless.

We ask ourselves if the countdown to these moments provided us with a necessary dose of optimism or whether they kept us from living in the moment. The Jewish tradition of counting the Omer, the 49-day period between Passover and Shavuot, can provide us with some wisdom on this question. The Omer is the time of the Jewish people’s wandering in the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt until receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It is the time between the first barley harvest and the first wheat harvest. It is a time of anticipation both mythically and agriculturally. Traditionally, we bless and count each day of the Omer as we prepare for the holiday of Shavuot. This 49-day period is also described in the Talmud as a period of mourning. In the 2nd century CE, it is said that a plague killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the great Jewish sages. As they all died in the period between Passover and Shavuot, there is a tradition of practicing some mourning rituals during this time.

The Omer is thus a time of hope and anticipation as well as a time of mourning. It mirrors the period we are facing right now in our lives. We have so much hope and joy as things begin to re-open. However, we also have sadness as we recognize anew what and whom we have lost. We feel exhausted as our minds and bodies transition to another new reality and begin to feel the trauma of the last year. The counting of the Omer can provide us with the pause necessary to discern the emotions we feel in the moment while also providing us with the hopeful anticipation of what lies ahead. As we ritually count each day, we both recognize the gifts we have no matter how small they may seem, and we notice how much closer we are to Mt. Sinai, to a new chapter of our lives.

May our tradition help us hold all that is in our hearts and help us remember that each day of the journey, not just the destination, is worthy of blessing.

Rabbi Renée Bauer is Director of Chaplaincy and Outreach at Jewish Social Services of Madison.

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