During the Omer, we remind ourselves that tragedies the Jewish people have faced have a cost beyond human suffering with implications for our national mission — the study of Torah and the promulgation of Torah values throughout the world.
This Friday night, participants in Shabbat services will declare, “Today is two and 40 days which is six weeks in the Omer.” Like the countdown to some great event, this formula is used to count the 50 days between the second day of Passover and the festival of Shavuot. From biblical times until the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, the Omer had agricultural significance, marking the time until the Omer sacrifice would make it permissible to enjoy the fruits of the spring grain harvest. On a mystical level, it was experienced as counting the days to prepare to re-receive the Torah on Shavuot.
But for the last 1,000 years or more, the Omer has been known for the mourning practices with which it is associated. For 33 of the 50 days of the Omer, Jews in many communities avoid celebrations like weddings and Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties, do not go to concerts or movies, put off having their hair cut and practice other customs commonly associated with grief and mourning.
The sages explain this by referring to the Talmudic narrative of 12,000 pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva who died in the period between Passover and Shavuot “because they did not act respectfully towards one another.” The result of this tragedy, the Talmud says, is that “the world was desolate,” on which Rashi comments, “the world was desolate because Torah was forgotten.”
Rashi’s comment goes to the core of Jewish existence. Abraham and Sarah were promised that their children would be a source of blessing for the world. Four hundred years later, their children were given the gift that is the vehicle for that blessing: the Torah. Its purpose and ours is to promote the values and lessons that will guide human society in the task of making the world more perfect. Times when Torah study flourishes and Torah values abound portend well for society and are cause for celebration. Times when the study and practice of Torah are diminished by the destruction of Jewish communities are cause for mourning.
The Omer differs from other days of mourning observed in the Jewish calendar. These commemorate the human loss experienced in our national tragedies. We fast on Tisha B’Av, avoid meat and wine during the “Nine Days” leading up to Tisha B’Av and remember Yom Hashoah to grieve over calamities that have befallen us and to mourn their human cost. During the Omer, we remind ourselves that these tragedies have a cost beyond human suffering with implications for our national mission — the study of Torah and the promulgation of Torah values throughout the world.
We are blessed to live in an era in which Torah study flourishes in communities around the world. Only 70 years after the Shoah, the Jewish people can once again be the source of blessing as Abraham was promised. Saturday is the 42nd day of the Omer; after that we have only eight days left to renew our commitment to making it so.
This column is dedicated to the memory of Steven Asher, who passed away on April 27. He was committed to making this world more perfect, and brought joy to those who knew him and honor to his community. He loved Torah study, modeled a life based on Torah values, and lived each day in appreciation of the beauty of God’s creation. The world is diminished by his loss.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva.