Why is the language of lovemaking so hard to learn?
Why is the body so often dumb flesh?
Why does the mind so often choose to fly away at the moment
the word waited for all one’s life is about to be spoken?
(Alice Walker, the Temple of My Familiar)
Beginning on the second evening of Pesakh, ancient Jewish gratitude practice mandated a daily recognition of one’s harvest. In this week’s parashat hashavua we see the mitzvah described:
כִּֽי־תָבֹ֣אוּ אֶל־הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ נֹתֵ֣ן לָכֶ֔ם וּקְצַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־קְצִירָ֑הּ וַהֲבֵאתֶ֥ם אֶת־עֹ֛מֶר רֵאשִׁ֥ית קְצִירְכֶ֖ם אֶל־הַכֹּהֵֽן׃
When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. (Lev. 23.10)
As an ancient people, we follow mitzvot that have sometimes literally been uprooted from their original meaning, as we ourselves were uprooted from our home yet managed to find ways to stay connected. We who are not generally barley farmers now use the tool of midrash to evoke other meanings for this essential activity of garnering resources of survival. We may not be hunter gatherers or farmers ourselves, yet all of us know what it is to harvest the fruit of our labor, and all of us know that there are many modern plagues that can imperil harvests real and symbolic, and thus our own lives. A daily gesture of gratitude seems appropriate.
We are in the middle of that season right now: today is the 29th day of the Omer Count, and there’s a daily blessing we’re supposed to say as we do the daily count. Perhaps it does not seem to be much to ask of us, to take a moment each day and do this symbolic act of gratitude for harvest; but apparently it is. Proof is that there’s an app for it which you can download onto your phone to remind you.
Why is is so hard to remember to stop and count our blessings? Rather than dismiss this essential human question with the modern answer of “I’m too busy” or the post modern answer of “I’m too distracted by impending apocalypse” I’m intrigued by the light shed on this question by using another rabbinic interpretive tool: juxtaposition. At the beginning and end of the Omer counting period are the harvest festivals of Passover and Shavuot. During both of these times of joy, we are to gather and share our harvest with others in a great celebration of family and friends and enough to sustain us.
At those gatherings there will, inevitably, sooner or later, be an empty chair. That is why both Passover and Shavuot include a Yizkor prayer; four times a year – at the three harvest festivals and on Yom Kippur – we specifically invoke the memory of our loved ones who have died. And so we see that accompanying every moment of joy is sorrow; every moment of counting joys evokes times of suffering.
To count what we have is to notice what we do not have. It’s one reason behind the ancient Israelite (and modern Jewish) superstition against counting people. It can seem altogether too painful.
But we are commanded to be joyful on our holy days, and we are urged to count these days, not because our tradition ignores the complexity but because Judaism embraces it. A full human life includes love, and love brings with it the inevitable loss. To choose to live without love, out of fear of loss of love, is to refuse to take part in life itself. Better to learn to laugh fully, cry openly, and explore all the complicated depths of the heart we’re given, so that we can “sound the depths of our being”:
“only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security. And yet how much more human is the dangerous in security that drives [us] to feel out the shapes of [the room’s darkness] and not be strangers to it.” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 8)
As we sing during our Yizkor prayers, “teach us to count our days, that we might achieve a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90.12).