The Omer: Despair to Joy


The Omer period between Pesach and Shavuot has always seemed bewildering to me. These short seven weeks are inundated with Jewish rituals that take us through 3,500 years of history from the time of the Torah through today. We travel back to Ancient Egypt, through the desert to Israel, into exile, through the holocaust, and finally, back to Israel, feeling despair, joy and every emotion in between. At the same time, the school year draws to a close, bringing with it a seemingly infinite amount of schoolwork, and the weather suddenly shifts from winter to spring.

These seven weeks are replete with important days, seemingly divided into three different narratives. First, the narrative of the Jewish people in the Torah. On Pesach, Hashem saved the Jews from slavery in Egypt, performing the 10 plagues and bringing them safely across the Red Sea. The Jews wandered in the desert until they reached Har Sinai where they received the Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot.

The second narrative is that of the Second Temple period. Rabbi Akiva’s students didn’t treat each other well, so they were all killed by a plague in the first 33 days of the Omer. On Lag BaOmer, the plague stopped.

The third story is one of the 20th century. In the six years between 1939 and 1945, six million innocent Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis simply because of their religion. This tragedy, which we commemorate during the Omer on Yom HaShoah, has unquestionably shaped the course of modern Jewish history. Only two years later, on November 9, 1947, the United Nations voted to change Palestine from British Mandate to a Jewish state. In 1948, Israel declared its independence on the 5th of Iyar, the date that we celebrate as Yom Haatzmaut today. This led its Arab neighbors to declare war on Israel, fighting to prevent a Jewish state. Because of brave Jewish soldiers, Israel won that war and has been able to protect us ever since. Each year, before Yom Haatzmaut, we commemorate the heroic men and women who died to protect Israel, acknowledging that without them, we would not have a country to celebrate on Yom Haatzmaut.

Although the three stories seem separate, in fact, the connection can easily be explained. These three periods all transition from sadness to happiness, מגנות לשבח, as we say at our Pesach seders. In the biblical narrative, we transition from slavery to freedom. In the second temple period, we moved from a plague, because Jews weren’t treating each other well, to healing. In modern history, we started with the unspeakable horror of the Shoah, went through a war to assert our right to independence and ended up with our own country.

The Omer is a period to transition from tragedy and sadness to joy. The period is meant to be confusing, a whirlwind of emotions and a time to process and connect between them. We count the days, further from sorrow and closer to happiness with each count, moving step by step to allow a gradual transition rather than an abrupt one. The beginning of the Omer is a period of mourning to match our mood when we think of the solemn events we are commemorating. However, the mourning ends on the 33rd day because, at that point, we have passed the midpoint and are now more lighthearted than grieving.

We cannot wallow in our grief, we must move past it to acknowledge the positive things that our nation has attained.

Because the Omer is a process and not an event, Shavuot has no date in the Torah. It is simply described by its relation to Pesach, 50 days later, rather than a date in its own right. During the Omer, we begin by identifying with the slaves at the seder, with the Holocaust victims on Yom HaShoah and with the students of Rabbi Akiva. However, we cannot wallow in our grief, we must move past it to acknowledge the positive things that our nation has attained: the Torah, the end of the plague and on Yom Haatzmaut especially, the land of Israel.

Josephine Schizer is a sophomore at Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan. She is also a member of the Fresh Ink for Teens’ Editorial Board.