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Torah: Omer ritual helps us pay attention to each moment

Passover Day VIII

Deuteronomy 14:22–16:17

Numbers 28:19–25

Isaiah 10:32–12:6

“Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” writes Henry David Thoreau at the close of “On Walden Pond.” Thoreau implores us in his masterpiece to be deeply attentive to the most minute detail of life, to not allow a moment to pass us by without notice.

I struggle to bring consciousness to the way my days unfold, but many of them merely pass me by. Or worse, I find myself anxiously awaiting the end of a difficult period of time, wishing away days until things turn around.

Our Torah reading at the close of Passover introduces us to a spiritual practice that can help us stay awake and aware on a daily basis. Deuteronomy 16:9 reads, “You shall count off seven weeks,” instructing us in the practice of counting the Omer, the days between the Passover liberation and Shavuot’s giving of the Torah. Counting the Omer is the simplest of rituals. Before going to bed, a blessing is followed by counting the number for that night beginning with one and ending at 49. A seemingly mundane activity, counting can actually be a spiritual practice. Many cultures and religions use counting as a mechanism for concentration and meditation — from counting beads to counting breaths.

In this way, a calendar is a device that allows us to pay attention to days as they pass. Some Jews have even expanded the nightly counting into a longer meditation practice, and the kabbalists used the opportunity to meditate on the link between aspects of the divine and areas for personal growth.

But even as a simple, one-minute ritual, Omer counting helps us experience this period of time, each day, as sacred. A Jewish spiritual path leads us to acknowledge the potential for holy moments at every turn. Like Thoreau, we acknowledge the complexity in the seemingly simple. Every moment is an opportunity to be lifted up and transformed so it is not taken for granted, and counting the Omer is one such ritual that trains us to pay attention.

In Barbara Myerhoff’s book “Number Our Days,” she offers an imaginary conversation between herself and an elderly man who had recently died. She says to him, “I lost … Ruth, my beloved friend of twenty years, who was like my sister. We were together almost every day for eighteen months while she was dying. I learned from her about the nearness of death intensifying every aspect of life.” Her imaginary conversant replies, “I think this attitude you are talking about, paying such attention to life, is what we mean by ‘a heart of wisdom.’ In the psalm it says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”

The reference is to Psalm 90:12, which links wisdom to counting every day, or making every day count. With such little time to be alive, we teach ourselves how to drink in every sacred moment. It is often when faced with our own mortality or the loss of loved ones that we are driven to contemplate the way we spend the precious few days allotted us.

Poet Mary Oliver writes, “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world” (“New and Selected Poems”). Jewish rituals that focus on paying attention help us combat the feeling that we haven’t been awake to our own lives. Counting the Omer asks us to think about the gift of that particular day as it is ending to ensure that we aren’t merely visiting this world.

For most of us, the reality is that we float somewhere between awareness and auto-pilot. A daily practice may not change that immediately, but it can make us more aware of which state we are in. What would our lives look like if we asked ourselves each night if we had been truly awake and aware that day?

Whether you count the Omer or not this year, find a way to make your days count.

Postscript: To find the number for tonight, search the web for an Omer calendar. Print out a copy and put it near your bed. Or find Rabbi Min Kantrowitz’s “Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide.”

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at rabbimrc@stanford.edu.

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Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."