this the text version of a sermon from the 7th day of Passover –
We are in a period of our calendar that we call the ‘sefirat ha’omer’ – the counting of the omer. The counting comes from the an ancient agricultural ritual described in the Torah, in Leviticus 23, where the very first sheaf of grain that was harvested was brought to the priest on the day after Passover, marking the beginning of the harvest season. The Torah commands that we count seven times seven days to link this first sheaf to the fuller barley crop that would grow throughout the spring.
Over time the 49 days of the counting came to be understood as a period of sadness and mourning. This is the reason why the tradition asks us to not hold weddings during the sefira – it is not considered appropriate during a time of sadness for the Jewish people to hold festive celebrations. I’ve learned over the years that people are aware of this tradition, so that each year I get phone calls from families trying to plan weddings and worrying that their chosen date will fall during the omer period. The truth is there is a wide variety in terms of how that tradition is observed. At one time there was a split in the Sephardic and Ashkanazic communities, so that Ashkenazic Jews would have weddings at the beginning of the period, from Passover to Rosh Hodesh Iyar, but then stop for the rest of the time, while Sephardic Jews would do the opposite – have no weddings from Pesah until the 33rd day of the counting, known as ‘lag b’omer’, but then permit weddings during the rest of the counting.
The strange thing about this association of the omer counting and sadness its that we are not really sure where it comes from. Maimonides, in his great code of Jewish law the Mishnah Torah, does not even mention it. The only hint of it we have from early sources is a strange passage in the Talmud, which tells us that thousands of Torah students were killed by a plague between Passover and Shavuot during the time of Rabbi Akiva. Even so the Talmud does not suggest that the period be observed as one of mourning moving forward, and it does not attempt to create any type of day that commemorates the student’s deaths. And it wasn’t until hundreds of years later – probably 800 or so the common era – that Jewish sources begin to shape the omer counting into a time of communal sadness. Why did the tradition make that decision, and make it so difficult for us to plan our spring weddings?
One answer to that question may be found in an examination of Jewish history. We know we don’t have to look too hard to find tragedy in our past, but the period of the omer counting seems to be particularly full of it. It was during this time in the year 135 that the Jewish revolt led by the messianic figure Bar Kochba was brutally put down by the Romans. Ultimately killed thousands upon thousands of Jews, destroyed Jewish cities, and by the way changed the name of the land from Judea to Syria-Palestine. The famous story of the 10 martyrs, recited during the Eila Ezkara on Yom Kippur comes from this time, so we have a sense that the physical destruction of the Jewish people was only part of the Roman agenda – they also wanted to destroy the sprit of the Jewish people. Torah study was banned upon pain of death, Jews were not allowed to assemble publicly, to gather in synagogues, to hold worship services or classes. It was without question one of the darkest and most dangerous times in Jewish history. When you think about it that way it begins to make sense that the tradition wants us to mark the period as one of tragedy and sadness, in the same way that we mark the Holocaust with a specific day of commemoration in modern times.
But the strange thing about it to me is this: during the entire period of the counting there is not a single word said about any of these historical memories of sadness. It is on Yom Kippur the we read the story of the 10 martyrs. It is on Tisha B’Av in the summer when we recall the destruction of Jerusalem. It is not like the tradition is shy in terms of including these memories in our liturgy, or choosing scriptural readings that in some way reflect the historical memory. So why didn’t the tradition do anything to reflect the historical memory of sadness that we say this period is about?
To try to answer that question for a moment I’ll turn to one of my favorite novels, Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. You may remember the story – it is a coming of age tale about a young man named – Pip – who learns in the course of the novel about his origins, and also about what is truly most important about life. Perhaps the most memorable character in the novel is an old dowager named – Ms Havisham. She was left on the altar as a young woman, and since that day she has dedicated herself to mourning that moment in her life. Years later she still wears the wedding dress she had on that day. She keeps the clocks throughout her home set to the exact time when the wedding was supposed to begin and didn’t. Even the wedding cake that was prepared for the celebration sits on her dining room table, decaying slowly into dust. Ms. Havisham is the paradigmatic example of a person who cannot leave her grief behind, whose entire life is defined by one great loss. She lives only in the past, and is unable to move forward into the future.
Judaism has always rejected this idea. In Jewish life grief is taken seriously, it is confronted head on, it is experienced deeply. But it is also limited by the tradition. There is a powerful moment at the end of shiva when the mourners are asked to leave the shiva house, to physically walk out of the door and to close it behind them. This is a symbolic moment – I will not spend the rest of my life in a shiva house, I will not let mourning define my life – I will not only live in the past, I will not only look backwards. In fact, the tradition demands of me that I look forward, into the future. Not that I leave the past behind – I will always carry it. But the Jewish way is to look forward, to affirm life, to survive, and to search for hope. Even in the darkest times.
And I wonder if that is why the sages decided not to included any specific prayers or readings that remind us of why the omer counting is supposed to be a period of sadness. In a sense we carry the past with us – we remember it, acknowledge it, it even affects our behavior – we don’t have the weddings. But at the same time by leaving the past in the past we are better able to walk forward into the future with hope and faith, better prepared, perhaps, to receive the Torah at the end of the road that the counting also represents.
May we all find the strength and courage we need to bear our burdens from the past, but at the same time to walk forward into a new spring with hopeful hearts for what a new day – and a new season – can bring –