Simultaneous Joy and Pain: The Wisdom of the Counting of the Omer

This year at our Passover Seder, I experienced something deeply powerful -- something I had not felt in the context of Passover before. Like many, we spend much of our Seder going around the table, each reading a section from the Haggadah out loud. Generally, because our Seder is populated partially by adults and partially by very young, mostly illiterate children, we move from adult to adult, skipping over the smaller folks at our table. But this year, when my husband finished reading his part, my Kindergarten age son said he'd like a turn to read.

And all of a sudden, space and time expanded for me, while I assume it continued at a normal pace for everyone else. It felt like a worm hole opened, and in what must have actually been only a second between my son saying he wanted to read and his starting to pronounce the Haggadah's words, his entire life so far from his birth until that moment flashed through my mind. And in that 5 1/2 years contracted down into 1/60th of a minute, I felt the most profound, overwhelming joy, and at the very same time, an all-consuming sadness. Joy at the fact that my son could actually do what he was doing: he could read, was somehow growing up, increasingly less toddler like and more and more fully real. Sadness that my son could actually do what he was doing: he could read, was somehow growing up, increasingly less toddler like and more and more fully real.

This is the time of year when we Jews find ourselves in the middle of the annual observance known as Sefirat haOmer, the Counting of the Omer. As such, beginning on the second day of Passover, each day (technically evening since Jewish days start at night) we say a blessing and literally count which day and week it is in the seven-week cycle, leading us up to Shavuot, which falls on the 50th day. What began as an ancient agricultural-spiritual holiday to mark the weeks between barley and wheat harvests has evolved significantly over time.

Thanks to the rabbis of the Talmud, we understand the Counting of the Omer primarily as the communal spiritual re-enactment of our ancestor's process of journeying from the Egypt for 49 days to the Torah being given to them at Mt. Sinai.

Thanks to the Kabbalists, we also understand the Omer time as an individual opportunity to refine and perfect areas of our own lives as we leave our own individual Mitzrayim -- whatever narrow and constricted parts of ourselves hold us back, and then travel to a place where we too can be open and receptive to whatever Revelation awaits us.

In either case, most important is the idea that we count up, not down, to express our ancestors and our own increasing excitement as they and we step closer and closer toward Revelation.

But the period of the Omer, as you might know, is also overshadowed with the tone and rituals of mourning, thus the associated prohibitions against haircuts, shaving or getting married, except on Lag B'Omer , the 33rd day of the Omer. The question is: Why? Why the sadness and mourning, if the time should have been completely celebratory? Think about it: Our ancestors were finally free -- no Egypt, no taskmasters. They could live life on their terms and would soon culminate their seven-week trip with the most momentous, holy experience of meeting the Divine and receiving of the Torah. Not much to be sad about, right? There are a few explanations for the mournful tone of the Omer period, mainly having to do with a plague that was said to have ravaged a Jewish community at the time of the Mishnah's composition. But I wonder if there isn't something more at play?

When we think about our own journeys out of whatever enslaves us, into moments of liberation and redemption and then ultimately to moments of real awakening and revelation, what are they really like? Are they filled only with excitement and joy? Or are they more complicated than that?

As a person whose job privileges her to share many important moments in people's lives, I have seen this complexity -- simultaneous overflowing joy and sadness -- particularly, but not exclusively at lifecycle events, made manifest in tears. Tears that society and Hallmark card commercials suggest are wholly joyous, but which I know also contain an honest sorrow. Both feelings evoked by the same experience, at once deep happiness for the arrival at a new marker, and also grief that the arrival at said marker comes with the knowledge that all the previous markers won't be sought out and reached again. It's in these moments that we live in both worlds, but out of which we all have to make a choice: which sensibility we will choose to let color our experience? When we arrive at these crossroads, one the path of joy and optimism and one the path of sadness and regret, how do we choose which route to take?

The Omer tradition, linking Passover to Shavuot, gives us the answer. This set of seven weeks, each made up of seven days, enables us to live in the real, complicated world of emotional complexity, fully, experiencing both joy and sadness -- incarnate in each day of the counting. But when the last day of the Omer concludes, the mourning ends. There is a reason that the moment of Revelation happens the first day of the eighth week, the 50th day -- the day after the last day of the counting. Because to experience Revelation, we can't be in mourning. We have to release it, and take that deep breath that acknowledges that we have a choice to make: Will we view life as some sort of diminishing, increasingly limiting count down to the end -- a road that ultimately leads us back to Mitzrayim, to the death of the spirit -- or will we see life as opening to an unending fount of opportunity, hope and joy -- a road that is the promise of a Revelation at a mountain point in an open, awaiting, uncharted land?

The wisdom of the Counting of the Omer is that it enables us to live in both worlds for a bit. The moments in between, those moments where only a second in real time passes, but a lifetime flashes through our mind's eye, those moments between Mitzrayim and the Mountain, that's when the real awakening happens. But you can't stand at Sinai unless you are awake -- heart, mind, body and spirit not somewhere back where you've been before, back in Mitzrayim, but open to the only place and moment there really is: the Present.

Back to our Seder: So I'm in this out-of-place-and-time experience, fully immersed in my seemingly conflicting feelings. And then, I hear my son carefully sound out: "God -- took -- us -- out -- of -- E...E...E...g...." And just like that, I am back. Back from this journey into the realm of my own reflections and emotions, because my son needs my help. "Egypt" I say. "Egypt with -- a -- strong -- hand..." he continues. And my eyes well. And there is no longer any sadness. But neither is there joy. I am simply and only and entirely filled with the most deep and overwhelming sense of gratitude and wonder instead.

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