By Rabbi Navah Levine, Director of Congregational Engagement and Ritual Life
My son Ari is learning to count. He’s pretty good at it, especially for a little guy who’s not yet three. Ari is a creative counter (e.g., ‘eleven-teen.’) And he’s enthusiastic (he likes to shout.)
Ari’s understanding of numbers has developed since he first started to count. He knows that two is more than one, and perhaps that three is more than two. But it is not at all clear that six is more than five (when I offer him six chocolate chips– an item for which more is always better – he insists “no! five!” Ari is partial to the number five. As best I can tell, five is his stand-in number for “a lot.” We read five books before bedtime, rub his back five times before saying goodnight.
Whatever the particulars of his level of understanding numbers, it is clear that some have greater meaning to him; they are more than simply words recited in a particular order. And his appreciation and use of them have changed over time.
Ari’s relationship to counting is evolving. And so is mine.
In recent years, I have discovered something almost sublime in the practice known as “Counting the Omer”. Starting on the second evening of Passover, and continuing through until Shavuot fifty days later, we count. We count up, starting with “Today is the first day of the Omer,” to forty nine. We count the passage of days and of weeks, until we reach the eve of Shavuot. There is something highly satisfying in remembering to do so each evening, in singing the preface and then declaring the next day. It seems to slow down the passage of time. I pause for a moment to notice that another day has begun, and add a number to it.
If Passover marks our moment of freedom from bondage, Shavuot marks the purpose of God’s having freed us. Shavuot celebrates the transformative moment of revelation at Sinai, when God revealed God’s-self to us, and we became forever bound to act in ways compatible with that experience. How do we prepare for this moment? By counting. Counting causes us to notice the passage of time, in daily increments. Noticing the passage of time might help us focus on how best to use that time, and how best to live out the life which God has granted. We can’t always pay such close attention. But once a year, between Passover and Shavuot, at the end of each day, we take a moment simply to notice, to count. There is power, and beauty, in that.