Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Road to Nowhere: On Wildernesses and the Omer

I'll start with a confession. I failed. Again.

There are seven weeks, 49 days, between Passover and Shavuot. These days are known as the Omer. In later Biblical times, they were the days of the barley harvest. Later, the rabbinic sages understood them to be the days we wandered in the desert, between Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. Jewish tradition asks us to count the days of the Omer; each night--from the second night of Passover until the night before Shavuot, a blessing is said and a formula recited. But, the tradition also says that if you miss a night, you are 'out of the game.' You may continue to count, but you are no longer obligated--nor entitled--to say the blessing.

I am a terrible Omer counter. Despite the fact that I actually find deep spiritual meaning in the practice, it is not something with which I grew up, and it is not something I have naturally--or even with challenges--assimilated into my Jewish practice. I am, because of various professional obligations around Shavuot, acutely aware of its arrival....but not once have I made it to the end of the Omer without missing a night. Not once have I been able to say the blessing every night from Passover to Shavuot.

I just spent the last 24 hours in Detroit, learning from and speaking with the foot soldiers and generals in the fight to reclaim, to revitalize, to recreate this American city. If you want to know more about why I was in Detroit, read here, but as I sit on the plane, reflecting on the experience, I gave some thought to why I am finding counting the Omer so difficult this year.

When I was a little kid, the month of June was often marked by toilet paper. I would set up a countdown, with a certain number of squares tacked to the wall. Each day, I would tear one off, until the day arrived: the first day of camp. I still remember the excitement, and the anxiety, that came along With the dwindling number of squares, and it was immediately to this countdown that I turned when I first learned about the custom on counting the Omer. Yet, then--as now--I recognized something significantly different. The Omer is not a countdown, it is a count up. When one counts down, there is automatically a fixed end point; you start from there and work backwards. But when one begins counting, one doesn't necessarily know the endpoint. Did our ancestors, wandering through the desert, know where they were going and when they would get there? Do I?

Meeting with these union officials, policy makers, and visionaries in Detroit had me asking the same questions on a larger scale. What does it mean to start the journey without knowing the endpoint? How do you keep the morale, the vision, the hope alive when it could be 49 days, months, or years before you reach your 'destination?' And, how do you even know what your destination is?

And, of course, as I asked those questions....I realized, that's life. And that's particularly life in the difficult times--in the times of unemployment, of family transitions, of financial or spiritual or emotional or mental or physical uncertainty. And I think that's partly why it is so hard for me to count the Omer this year in particular. It's really, really hard to start counting when you don't know when you get to stop. It's really, really hard to envision Sinai when you're lost in the desert. It's really, really hard....and maybe that's why the rabbis asked us to do it. Maybe they knew that, just like our ancestors, we too would get lost in the wilderness; after all, they were in their own political and spiritual wilderness. 

The notion of Shavuot as zman matan Torateinu, the holiday of revelation, was a rabbinic one. Perhaps they created that link to Passover, that midpoint on the journey to the Promised Land, to remind us that at any moment, Sinai could be just on the horizon, that one more day could bring the revelation....a revelation. To remind us that even when we don't know where we are going, or when we'll get wherever that is......we can start moving.

I won't finish the Omer with all its blessings this year. But, I might continue counting nonetheless, and maybe, just maybe, I'll find a blessing along the way.

Hayom shivah asar yom, she-hem shnei shavuot u'shlosha yamim la-Omer.
Today is seventeen days, which is two weeks and three days of the Omer.

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