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Toward Shabbat: Aharei Mot

Counting Each Day

As we transitioned out of Passover this past week, I felt a bit of the letdown that comes from going from a time of freedom and specialness back into the routine of everyday life. Perhaps nothing signifies monotony more than counting days—and this is exactly what we are now engaged in as we count the Omer, the period between Pesah and Shavuot.

Why do we do this? Every night, beginning on the second night of Pesah for 49 days, we declare aloud the number of days that have passed since the counting started. We even recite a blessing over this counting.

At one time, doing so may have been agriculturally important for the time of year. Nowadays, what is the purpose behind this practice?

Maimonides has one answer, in The Guide for the Perplexed:

ו’שבועות’ הוא יום ‘מתן תורה’. ולהגדיל היום ההוא ימנו הימים מן המועד הראשון אליו – כמי שממתין בוא הנאמן שבאוהביו שהוא מונה היום וגם השעות. וזאת היא סיבת ‘ספירת העומר’ מיום צאתם ממצרים עד יום ‘מתן תורה.’

Shavuot is the time of the Giving of the Torah. In order to honor and elevate this day we count the days from the previous festival until it [arrives], like someone who is waiting for a loved one to arrive, who counts the days by the hours. This is the counting of the Omer from the day of Exodus from Egypt to the day of the Giving of the Torah (3:43).

We are now waiting for the Torah to arrive on Shavuot—we are waiting for revelation of Divine wisdom! Of course we want to know exactly how long there is left to wait!

However, there is another aspect of counting the Omer that I experience, which stands in tension with the countdown mentality.

Though this countdown mentality perhaps primes us to speed through our days to get to the finish line, I believe that part of the purpose of counting the Omer is to encourage us to do just the opposite: to move through our days at a slower pace than we usually might; to feel the weight of a single day in its fullness, rather than rushing through the weeks.

Often on a Friday evening when Shabbat arrives, I find myself feeling as though the previous Shabbat just ended—that the week flew by in a flurry of activities, work, school, meals, conversations, and commutes. Before I know it another week has passed and it’s Shabbat again. It seems as if there is no acknowledgement of the importance of each previous day.

In English, when we say “this counts for something,” it’s another way of saying “this matters.” When we count the Omer between Pesah and Shavuot, we are saying about each day: “This counts for something.”

The Omer invites us into the understanding that each day is meant to be noticed before it passes. One way that this manifests is in the Kabbalistic practice of noting the intersection of sefirot, or Divine qualities, particular to each day of the Omer. According to Kabbalah, each day of the week has a Divine quality, and each of the seven weeks of the Omer also has its own Divine quality: lovingkindness, strength, beauty, eternity, splendor, foundation, and majesty.

When I made an Omer calendar last year to track the sefirot of each day, I chose to use watercolors in my design. Doing so allowed me to see both the overlap of the differing colors associated with each of the sefirot and the 49 new colors that emerge from how they mix together. This year, as I take note of each day—its colors and its combination of Divine attributes—I try to recognize how these qualities show up in my day.

This past week, the second week of the Omer, is characterized as the week of gevurah: firmness, strength, discipline, and boundaries. Each day I found some way that this theme showed up through the refraction of the day, often in ways that humbled and surprised me. Looking at each day through the lens of sefirot prepares us for revelation because we are primed to recognize the moments when the day’s particular qualities are revealed. The Omer is the opposite of monotony; paradoxically, the countdown to the arrival of our beloved Torah allows us to notice Divine wisdom at work.

As we enter into Shabbat, and into the third week of the Omer, may we combine the anticipation of counting down with the slow savoring of each day, as we prepare ourselves for revelation.