Faith Reflection on May 10, 2012 at the National Steering Committee meeting of the PICO Network
On Lag Ba-Omer: A thought on Numbering our Days
by Rabbi David J. Cooper
My text today is psalm 90:12
It literally translates as:
“That we number our days, thus do teach us, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Limnot yameynu keyn hoda v-navi l’vav chochmah
In the Jewish calendar, each day from the second day of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot is consciously counted and enumerated with a blessing. Seven weeks of seven days, 49 days. In terms of agricultural time these 7 weeks were important in ancient Palestine-Israel as the time between the barley and wheat harvests. In terms of sacred time, these weeks were regarded as marking the interval from the exodus from Egypt to the receiving of the law at Mt. Sinai. Christians too mark this interval as the time from the crucifixion to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples. The 50th day in Hebrew is called Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks, and in English both holidays are called Pentecost.
Within this 7-week Omer-interval is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar which falls today. We call it Lag ba-Omer which means the 33rd day of the Omer. There is a dispute about why this particular day was chosen for celebration. But I find the dispute far too boring to share with you right now. Suffice it to say, I’ll accept any good reason for a bonfire in May with singing and dancing.
But why this pre-occupation with consciously counting days? A few years ago it occurred to me that 50 days is just about 1/7 of the Jewish year which is 354 days on most years. During the omer, the daily counting ritual gives the week number followed by the day number of the week and also the total days so far of the Omer. On each day we can extrapolate that this is one seventh of a week of seven days, and each week we can extrapolate that this is one week of seven weeks. On the Omer, we can extrapolate one further step, which is that in just seven such periods a year will have gone by. Day to week to omer to year, in just four steps. And the Torah then tells us about how each of seven years is counted toward the sabbatical year called the shmittah when the land was allowed to lie fallow. And the Torah goes on to count seven shmittot followed by the Jubilee year when the land was redistributed back and restored to those who lost their homes due to impoverishment. It was concerning the Jubilee year that the Torah decreed that we should blow the great shofar and declare liberty throughout the land unto all of its unhabitants. In just 6 jumps we moved from 24 hours to 50 years.
Frankly, this country is long overdue for a Jubilee-year redistribution of wealth and power that we in the PICO network envision for this Land of Opportunity.
But again I persist: why this preoccupation with time? During the Omer , I become reminded just how quickly time passes. The odds I could live the span of just two Jubilee intervals are very low. As an adolescent, 5 years seemed like a long time. Living 70, 80 or 90 years was the equivalent of an eternity. So what’s the rush to do whatever it is that is uniquely mine to do. There is always a tomorrow. But when we count our days, we are reminded that there isn’t always a tomorrow. Our time is limited. So if we count our days, then we gain the wisdom to make our days count.
Our job is to discern what it is that is uniquely ours to do and then pursue it. In the Torah Moses does this, but never lives to complete the task himself.
My prayer this afternoon is that we all be resilient and persistent as we do the work that must be done. I pray that we accept with grace and wisdom that those tasks that we cannot accomplish within our brief lifetimes, will be taken up by our successors. I pray that we learn to count our days and to know the words of Rabbi Tarphon from the Mishnah who said, It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.
Here in Berkeley, it is before sunset, so it is still the 33rd day of the Omer. The blessing for this day’s count: Blessed are You, Eternal One, Governor of space and time, who by holy instruction commands us to count the Omer. AMEN. Today is 3 and 30 days which are four weeks and five days of the omer.
Blessed are we as we gain wisdom from knowing that our days are numbered. Amen.