Counting the omer, making a difference

By Laura Seymour

Dear Families,

Let’s talk about counting — specifically about counting the omer. Some people don’t know what I’m talking about; some think it is meaningless today; and some, like me, have an app on their phone. It reminds me, gives me the blessing and even gives me some things to think about each night. At this reading, we are getting to the end of this period — Shavuot is coming.

So what is it? The special period between Passover and Shavuot is called sefira, meaning “counting” from the practice of counting the omer, which is observed from the night of the second Seder of Passover until the eve of Shavuot. The counting of seven weeks on which the omer offering of the new barley crop was brought to the Temple, until Shavuot, serves to connect the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt with the festival that commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Tradition has it that it was announced to the Israelites in Egypt that the Torah would be given to them 50 days after the Exodus. As soon as they were liberated, they were so eager for the arrival of the promised day that they began to count the days, saying each time, “Now we have one day less to wait for the giving of the Torah.”

Does it matter today? The omer continued even after the development of a standard calendar eliminated its initial necessity: to let the people know exactly when to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It remained an opportunity to help us move out of enslaving patterns of thought and behavior. For the ancient Israelites, each day was a step away from the defilement of Egypt and a step toward spiritual purity. Like the Israelites who began to get ready for their encounter at Mount Sinai as soon as they crossed the Reed [or Red] Sea, we use the seven weeks beginning on Passover to similarly prepare ourselves for the arrival of Shavuot. During this time, we are supposed to evaluate our behavior and work to improve ourselves.

We all count days leading to something special — maybe good (can’t wait for my vacation), maybe bad (10 days until I have jury duty). But I count something that each of you should be counting. As many of you know, I am now camp director emeritus and camp will always be my happy place. I’m counting how many days until camp. I’m also counting how many young lives we will impact at camp. How many can we count? Here is the story I remind our staff (who are the leaders of tomorrow that we are also impacting each summer): The story is of a little boy on the beach with hundreds of starfish on the sand. Starfish cannot live outside the water so the little boy was picking up one at a time and throwing it back in the ocean. A man comes by and sees what the boy is doing. He says, “There are too many. You can’t make a difference.” The little boy picks up one and throws it back — “Made a difference to that one.” That’s what we do — make a difference to one at a time.

The challenge with counting the omer or counting days until something special happens is about making the anticipation as meaningful as the experience we are waiting for. Prepare to make a difference in the lives of others and in your own.

Laura Seymour is Jewish experiential learning director and camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.

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