By Saundra Sterling Epstein
Jokes help us maintain sanity in our present reality. One shows a calendar with all prefixes to “day” missing … each day is just “day.” Another claims this is the 935th day of March. And so it goes — we are conscious of counting days.
We count forward to indicate how many days we have been socially distanced, self-isolated or quarantined. We know people who are sick and, unfortunately, leaving this planet we all share. It’s sad and draining. As Jews and human beings, we are sad, frustrated, lost.
We are also counting days — seven weeks of seven days between Pesach and Shavuot, totaling 49 days. We articulate a daily count and bracha for each day of the grain harvest. This recalls the daily sacrifice of the Omer offered in the Bait HaMikdash during this period. There are practices that mark this time during which many Jews do not listen to live music, participate in large celebratory gatherings, cut hair, wear new clothes, and so on.
Among the explanations for these practices is remembering the scourge of deaths among Rabbi Akiba’s 24,000 students, particularly heartbreaking as we learn that it was due to their abhorrent behavior toward each other, not following Akiba’s teaching of loving each other truly and honestly. They were so caught up in the details of practice, love and empathy were eclipsed.
We are also taught that counting each day represents spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah, Z’man Matan Torateinu, Shavuot. Jewish mystics and others teach that each day is characterized by various combinations of seven of our 10 sefirot: chesed (kindness), gevurah (strength), tiferet (beauty), netzach (eternity), hod (splendor), yesod (foundation) and malchut (sovereignty of self). Each day includes different combinations of two of these seven characteristics; we think about their place in our lives. How can we show strength by being kind? How is there beauty in what is eternal?
As we do this, we are preparing to recommit ourselves to the receiving of Torah with no less celebration than we shared during Pesach. We recall we were freed from Egypt (zeman cheiruteinu) in order to receive Torah. This counting is to raise our morale, showing that each day is different, marking those differences intentionally.
Our Christian friends recently completed their season of counting days. Lent began on Ash Wednesday and culminated with Easter. The purpose of Lent is self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter. In its beginning, we are told it only lasted a few days; but later, in 325 CE, the Council of Nicea instituted a 40-day Lenten season of fasting, which was to include the entire church community as it does today. I find it fascinating that this period of 40 days — so known in the Jewish system of counting — appears here, specifically as our rabbinic tradition bloomed and took hold.
Similarly, our Muslim neighbors begin their own counting of days of Ramadan, this year from April 23 until May 23. Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is a most significant time for Muslims — the month in which the Qu’ran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel in 610 CE while Muhammad was sequestered in a cave. Tradition also teaches that like Rabbi Akiba, Muhammad began receiving these teachings at the age of 40. Muslims mark this time by fasting during daylight hours, prayer, avoiding many pleasures and reflecting on how to do and be better, similar to Lent and Sefirat HaOmer.
One more culture to consider: the Chinese. In the I Ching, the Book of Changes, sacred to the Chinese, there is a counting of yarrow sticks in which people try to ascertain higher meanings in their lives. There are 50 sticks, with one set aside and leaving 49 to arrange in a variety of hexagon formations, each one representing another aspect of existence. One proceeds through all 64 combinations.
While each represents a step up the ladder of self-actualization, there is a break between the 49th combination which ends the “climbing up” dynamic and the 50th formation, which begins the upper reaches of what one can attain. I am fascinated by the 49 sticks; the mention of the 50th paralleling our 50th day, Shavuot; use of agricultural product paralleling the Omer; and that one has reached a plateau after the first 49 combinations.
In Avigdor Shachan’s book “In the Footsteps of the Lost Ten Tribes,” he shows that the Jews from the Assyrian exile went east and influenced many cultures. He focuses on these influences in Chinese practices, dress of Shinto priests in Japan and linguistic sharing, among others. As the counting of the yarrow sticks are found in teachings of Confucius (551–479 BCE) and before, Shachan’s thesis that the Jews of the Assyrian exile from 722 BCE may have influenced these and other practices seems plausible. For centuries, scholars have researched how Jewish exiles brought their practices, dress, sense of time and so much else with them no matter where they went.
So here we come back to our lives in this moment. We count. But how we count is up to us. Time may appear fixed and definable to the scientist. For us, however, time is what we make it. In that spirit, let us commit to making our days count, think about how to do and be better and to consider how we will all come out of this year’s cycle of Sefirat HaOmer a bit more evolved and spiritually enhanced, ready to confront the challenges ahead.
Saundra Sterling Epstein directs BeYachad: Bringing Jewish Learning and Living Together, is the president of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council, directs Welcoming Shuls Project of Eshel and teaches, lectures and publishes in a variety of venues.