Counting the Omer

"I am because we are." -- Senator Andrew Dinniman

In his book Alternative to Futility, Elton Trueblood includes a chapter on discipline. He quotes Milton who said, "The history of every civilization rises and falls on the axel of discipline."

Trueblood illustrates the importance of discipline by citing the dress code of his Quaker heritage as well as the past dietary codes of Roman Catholics not to eat meat on Fridays. He goes on to say that when individuals make personal commitments and multiple individuals make collective commitments to those kinds of behaviors, an "enormous moral strength" is produced in the individual as well as in the group.

I thought of these words when I heard Senator Andrew Dinniman talk here on our campus the morning of our Community Service Day when he spoke to our students about the Jewish tradition of the Counting of the Omer.

The origin of this practice can be found deep in the Hebrew Bible in Leviticus 23:15-16 which says, "You shall count for yourselves -- from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving -- seven Shabbats, they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh Sabbath you shall count, fifty days."

"Omer" is a Hebrew word that means "sheaves of a harvested crop" and in ancient times Jews brought the "Omer" to the temple as an offering on the second day of Passover. The Bible says to count seven weeks from the bringing of the Omer until the evening of Shavuot, hence the counting of the Omer.

These days from Passover to Shavuot represent spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah which was given by God on Mt. Sinai. It is to be a time of semi-mourning when traditional Jews do not get haircuts or celebrate weddings.

Omer-counters are typically offered for sale during this time, and are displayed in synagogues for the benefit of worshippers who count the Omer at the conclusion of the evening services. Omer-counters range from decorative boxes with an interior scroll that shows each day's count to posters and magnets with daily designations to pegboards and even iPad and iPhone Apps.

As soon as it is definitely night (about 30 minutes after sundown), the one who is counting the Omer recites this blessing, "Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to count the Omer." Each day the correct number is cited.

According to Senator Dinniman, the symbolism of the counting of the Omer was especially to remind the participants of the balance between the deliverance of the Hebrews out of Egypt, i.e. their liberty and their receiving of the Law 50 days later on Mt. Sinai, i.e. their responsibility.

He went on to say that for people of faith, there always comes with our faith a great responsibility and, "As you count the days, will you be counted upon to make a difference? Will you go from the breaking of bread to the giving of bread?"

He also referenced the philosopher Descarte who said, "I think therefore I am" and, "50 to 100 years from now we will not be measured by our wealth or our possessions but whether we have been instruments of change by our simple acts of caring for each other. Good decent people of faith can do that." He concluded by saying, "I am because we are."

As I heard him reference the counting of the Omer and the meaning for him and our Jewish friends imbedded in those 50 days, I thought of Elton Trueblood's comments about discipline. Trueblood's haunting conclusion is not to advise us to go back to the Quaker dress code or the Roman Catholic dietary laws but, as he said, "What do we have to replace it?"

Discipline. Sometimes, we can hardly live with it. All the time, we can hardly live without it.

Think about it.