The Omer: Finding Balance As Count

By Rabbi Judy Greenberg

In the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, we count the Omer. In ancient times, this period marked the beginning of the barley harvest. Jews would bring an offering of their first harvest of barley to the Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah tells us, “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, and you shall present a new meal offering to God” (Leviticus 23:15-16).

Most of us no longer grow and harvest barley, but the counting of these weeks remains a rich Jewish practice. Much meaning has been ascribed to this ritual. It is a small thing, a way of marking time.

In Judaism, we are always marking time - the days of the week count towards Shabbat, we watch the waxing and waning of the moon to mark our holidays, we observe yahrtzeits. Marking time is a thing we do.

Practitioners of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, have linked the Omer - this time of counting - to seven of the ten sefirot, or mystical attributes of the nature of God.

This week, starting with the evening of Sunday, April 11, begins the week of the Omer associated with the sefirah of Tiferet. According to The Omer Workbook by Amanda Herring & Mo Golden, Tiferet is the balance or harmony of the previous two sefirot: Chesed and Gevurah. Chesed is a boundless outpouring of love and kindness, and Gevurah is protective boundaries, or strength expressed in boundedness.

This week is about exploring the balance within ourselves of loving openness and the way we protect ourselves through limits.

There is a story from the Talmud (Taanit 24a) that illustrates this balance. This story is retold in Ruth Calderon’s book Bride for a Night: Talmud stories.

There is a town experiencing a drought. So they invite Rav, a famous rabbi from a city bigger than theirs. He comes and prays, and the whole community fasts. Rain does not fall.

The next day, a humble man of the town leads tefillot (prayers), and just as he utters the prayer for wind and rain, the wind blows, and the rain falls.

Rav asks this man who he is. And the man explains that he is a teacher - to the rich and poor alike. If a student does not learn, this teacher brings the student to his pond and appeals to the student with a fish. And the student learns.

This is a rich story, told in the Talmud’s characteristically brief way. Much can be extrapolated, especially from the teacher’s explanation of his occupation.

The balance I see this teacher exhibiting is his patience and assertiveness - his love and his limits. He knows that to teach a child to read, one cannot rush; one must be open, loving, and kind. But he has a backup plan. He has a set place and a set way. He remains in command when he is met with a challenging or challenged child. He holds firm.

And this same balance is, seemingly, what makes the rain fall. The patience and faith he exhibits in teaching a child to read is parallel, the story suggests, to waiting for rain. He has a liturgy to recite, a time and a place to open himself up to God. It is not boundless. It begins, and it ends. And, in both the case of the child and in the case of rain - it works.

This year has taught us, perhaps more than anything else, that more than one thing can be true at the same time. We can open our hearts while still protecting ourselves. Rain will come, but the wait may be long. I find silver linings and small blessings every day, but making my way through COVID is still terribly hard. I am grateful for my vaccine and furious at the inequity of access to quality healthcare. Spring has arrived, and I still feel stifled with cabin fever. I cherish the extra time with my family, but we all need more time apart from each other.

The Omer is long. We count one-by-one, up to seven full weeks of 49 days. We feel so many things as time passes. But it does pass.

Judy Greenberg works at Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as Rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator. Judy loves connecting with students as they discover and integrate their passions and identities. With Shabbat and Torah study as cornerstones of her work, Judy works to empower students to take hold of Torah as their inheritance and to use it as a force for good in their lives and in the world.

Disclaimer: The From Our Rabbis feature seeks to provide a platform representing the diversity of our community clergy. The views, information, or opinions expressed in the From Our Rabbis articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federation of Madison.