At this time of year, every evening after nightfall, Jews take a moment to bless the counting of the Omer, mentioning which day we are on within the 49-day continuum between the second night of Passover and Shavuot. Not only are we counting up, we are counting toward. There is a growth, a gestation, an understanding that something is being created. Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz in Siddur Lev Shalem compares the counting up of the Omer to the counting up that a pregnant woman does to assure that she gets as close to 40 weeks of pregnancy as possible to most ensure the best outcome for her baby.
As Jews the world over take the time to count upwards, we can think about the capacity for growth that time enables.
Shabbat candles: 7:46 p.m.
Torah: Emor/Lev. 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Havdalah: 8:51 p.m.
In Emor, the notion of what counting the Omer is about is more elaborate than elsewhere in the Torah. Deuteronomy 16:9 mentions counting weeks, while the first declaration of the holidays in Exodus 23:14-19 does not speak of any need for counting at all. In Emor, however, we are told “you should count for yourselves” [Leviticus 23:15], suggesting that the counting should have an impact, and be meaningful in some way. Sefer Hahinuch [Mitzvah 273] says that the counting is to re-experience the feelings that the Israelites had when newly redeemed from Egypt.
Rabbi Akiva has become associated with the Omer, as it became a time for commemorating the plague that struck down his students. In a new book, “Rabbi Akiva: Sage of the Talmud,” Barry Holtz quotes the Midrash [Avot de Rabbi Natan]: Akiva “was 40 years old and he had not studied anything. One time he stood at the mouth of a well and asked, ‘Who hollowed out this stone?’ He was told: ‘It is the water which falls upon it every day, continually.’ They said to him, ‘Akiva, have you not read the verse, ‘water wears away stone?’ [Job 14:19]. Immediately, Akiva drew the inference that the verse applied to himself. ‘If what is soft wears down the hard, how much the more so shall the words of the Torah, which are as hard as iron, hollow out my heart, which is flesh and blood!’ Immediately, he turned to the study of Torah.”
Akiva’s insight that water wearing away stone could be applied to his own heart is parallel to the ways of the Omer. With each day that we mark time and invest it with significance, we, too, are gestating and growing to be more and more ready to approach Shavuot. It is time, both wearing away the stone and Akiva’s own heart, as well as our own hearts, that over the counting period brings us increasingly closer to Torah.
Akiva is associated with time in another way, as well, because he posited a relationship of text and time that overcomes the world of the physical. In an aggadic tale, Moses asks God to show him what will become of his teachings [Menahot 29b]. God shows him a vision of Akiva in a study hall, centuries later, expounding not just on the words and letters but the crowns on top of the letters (a feature that occurs in eight letters of the alphabet as written in the Torah). Moses is perplexed, not seeing how that was connected to the text that he delivered to the Israelites. Moses also can’t understand why he was the one chosen to be the teacher of Israel when this other man, Akiva, clearly surpassed him in every way. In the vision, Akiva then explains that his knowledge came from Moses at Sinai. Moses is comforted by Akiva’s words.
Akiva’s teachings go beyond time. When, in that aggadic tale, Moses is told by God to “turn” and see what will become of his teachings, Professor Jeffrey Rubenstein of New York University explains that “turn” should be understood as “turn to the future,” rather than simply “turn around.”
The beauty of the simplicity of counting the Omer, to “count for yourselves,” is that it makes possible different understandings at different times, that nevertheless remain connected. Just as we connect ourselves to a Jewish understanding of time, and to the historical figures whose Torah posited the capacity of time to create, so, too, can we each use time in our own ways, to turn to the future as Moses turned towards Rabbi Akiva. Twenty-first century Jews, as well as those who lived in antiquity, have the ability to create something both unique and contemporary, as well as to tie ourselves to the Jewish past during this Omer period, in Emor and beyond.
Beth Kissileff is the author of the novel “Questioning Return” and editor of the anthology “Reading Genesis.” Visit her online at www.bethkissileff.com.