Shabbat Emor: To Count and To Mourn

Our parashat hashavua this week is Emor, which contains an account of the mitzvah which is the practice of counting the Omer.

וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃

From the day on which you bring the omer [sheaf of elevation offering]—the day after the Shabbat—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.

As we near this Shabbat, many of us are counting more days that this of coronavirus lockdown. 

Many of us are experiencing a bewildering range of strong, negative emotions: the fear of contagion, the sadness for lives lost, the disappointment of missed milestones, the frustration of cancelled events. Some of us are grieving the death of loved ones, struggling with anger over the callous bungling of our political leadership, perhaps even feeling rage over the treatment of the vulnerable.

We are facing terror and helplessness, two emotions that no one ever wants to be good at enduring. Yet – and this is perhaps no surprise – our Jewish tradition has been here, has done that.

For two thousand years, this time of counting the Omer has been associated with mourning. 

According to the Talmud, tens of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague during this time, and the blow to the community was so great that the feelings of loss continued ever after. Because it was said to happen during this time of year, between Pesakh and Lag baOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer count), these days have been marked by mourning practices ever since (observant Jewish men do not shave, weddings are not held). 

Another interesting theory is that the plague is actually a cover story, and the catastrophic number of deaths we suffered were actually those of young men who followed Bar Kochba into the third, and final, war against Rome. The Talmud records:

The Romans killed [Jewish] men, women and children until their blood flowed into the Mediterranean Sea… It was taught that for seven years the gentiles cultivated their vineyards with the blood of Israel without requiring manure for fertilization. (BT Gittin 57a)

Whatever the reason, these days of the Omer have existed for us as a time in which mourning is never far from the surface. What could be more appropriate for us in these tense and uncertain times, as we live with an abiding sense of mourning, more and more aware of all that is lost in these days?

We are not good at mourning; we are not practiced at sadness. We live in a society which rewards optimism and encourages hope, and as a result we do not even have the vocabulary to express our feelings. We feel badly, and we are told that we are feeling grief. But not every sadness is grief, and we cheapen the word by overuse. It reminds me of the urge to recite shehekheyanu for every happy moment, again mostly because of a lack of awareness of other brakhot, other options for articulating joy.

How can we learn to more deeply feel our feelings? For some of us this is a real difficulty. Feelings themselves have great power, and it takes careful discernment to differentiate what we feel from what we are. It’s useful to remind ourselves that feelings are not acts; that it is never wrong to feel what we honestly feel. Indeed, if we can dig into what we feel, we will learn what we need to learn about why we are feeling this way. 

The sign of maturity, for Jewish tradition, is not controlling feelings, but controlling the acts that are prompted by the feelings. It has been said that we have no thought police in Judaism; neither do we denounce the way we feel. G*d willing, we do the right thing even though we are afraid; as it has been said, courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act regardless.

Feeling sadness, letting oneself live there, is necessary if one would feel joy when the sadness lifts. Feeling disappointment and anger is necessary if one would learn to differentiate between emotions wisely. Not everything wrong causes grief; not everything bad causes anger.

On Lag baOmer – literally “the 33rd day of the Omer,” since Hebrew numbers are also letters, and 33 in Hebrew is לג – the traditional semi-mourning phase of the Omer count ends. We don’t know why. Did the plague let up? Did the Jews win a battle? 

All we know is that we made time and space to mourn effectively enough that when it was over we could feel the uplift, and it too is enshrined in our tradition. 

This counting of our own plague days will one day be over. If we have not experienced our emotions fully enough during this time so that we can articulate them, how will we ever be able to feel the joy we anticipate as we would like?

Today in the mystical Omer count we confront the human – and holy – characteristics of hesed and hod, kindness and gratitude. These qualities of our lives come into sharper focus when we are mourning and someone seeks to comfort us. May we feel all the qualities of our days, the bitter and the sweet, fully and deeply, that we may truly be said to live each day we count.

למנות ימינו כן הודה ונביא לבב חכמה

Limnot yameynu, keyn hodah v’navi levav hokhmah

Teach us to count our days, that we might become wise

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