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Counting the Omer

Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

by Yehuda Appel

A famous parable describes how a poor man, desperate to find the means to support his family, sets sail to foreign shores. Tragically, his ship is sunk in the stormy sea, but he somehow makes it to a tropical island. Much to his amazement, when he steps ashore he sees that the island is literally covered with diamonds. There are diamonds on the beach, diamonds on the side of the road, diamonds everywhere.

Determined to return home, he finds a shipbuilder on the island and offers to pay him in diamonds to build a boat. The shipbuilder laughs and then says, "But what am I going to do with worthless diamonds?!"

The hapless stranger soon learns that the currency of value on the island is meat gristle. Working very hard over a number of years, he earns enough meat gristle not only to pay for the building of a boat, but also to have plenty to bring back with him. When his boat is finished, the hapless traveler loads it up with meat gristle and heads home.

When he arrives home, his family is overjoyed to see him. Proudly, he announces, "We are now rich!" He opens the hatch of the boat and shows them... meat gristle! A ghastly silence hangs in the air. The poor man realizes his tragic mistake, and begins to cry.

Each of us is, to some extent, the poor man in this story. Brought into this world to accomplish certain tasks and uphold certain values, we often lose our way in the frantic pace of modern life. Too often, whether it be choosing career over family, or the tradeoff between expediency and values, we find ourselves trading diamonds for meat gristle. Tragically, we can never regain that lost time.

How do we combat this confusion?

One of the most powerful tools Judaism offers is Shabbat. On Shabbat, a Jew frees himself from the frantic, all-absorbing activities of the week - in order to step back and focus on the truly important elements in life. On Shabbat, we spend more time at home with our family, and in synagogue with our God. We take walks, review the accomplishments of the week, and contemplate the direction of our life.

Judaism says there are two other particularly powerful times to work on evaluating one's actions: the High Holidays, and the period between Passover and Shavuot. This latter period, described in this week's Torah portion, Emor, is known as the time of "Counting the Omer." Beginning on the second day of Passover, the Torah commands us to count 49 days leading up to Shavuot, the celebration of our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

According to many commentaries, the purpose of this count is to bridge the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. While it is true that the Jewish people received their physical freedom on Passover, that freedom was essentially without purpose until they were given the Torah on Mount Sinai on Shavuot. Thus Shavuot is the ultimate purpose of the Passover saga. Our counting the days as we move towards Shavuot reminds us to focus on meaningful goals, as symbolized by the Torah and Mount Sinai.

Other sources (Nachmanides and the Abarbanel) note the association between the counting of the Omer and the harvest seasons. The word "Omer" itself denotes a dry measurement and refers to the amount of barley flour that was brought as an offering to the Temple on the second day of Passover. This offering came at the time of the barley harvest and was an expression of thanks to God. At the end of the 49 days of counting, at the time of the wheat harvest, an offering of wheat flour was also brought.

According to the Abarbanel, with all their involvement in farming activities, the agrarian population of Israel could become too absorbed in their work and forget the significance of the period. The counting of the Omer served to act as a brake on such self-absorption, and refocus them on the values represented by the Shavuot holiday.

During these weeks, when Jews around the world are counting of the Omer, it has become another modern-day reminder to focus on the diamonds in our lives... and not the gristle.


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