Keeping Count — of the Omer and the Corona Lockdown


At first glance, life seems to be unfolding as it normally does this time of year. The seder plate is back in the storage cabinet, the tulips are in bloom and we’ve swapped boxes of matzah for yeasty bagels by the dozen. But really nothing is normal in this Twilight Zone of corona lockdown, not even the annual Counting of the Omer.

Each night for seven weeks, we recite a blessing and a simple formula — for example, Today is nine days, which is one week and two days of the Omer — to sanctify the passage of time between Passover and Shavuot. The trajectory between the two holidays, like our biblical wandering in the desert, gives us the chance to prepare ourselves spiritually for the gift of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Every year, I drop the ball before we even start counting on the second night of Passover. But my husband, determined to see the Omer through to the end, usually counts in synagogue after the evening prayer service. With the building shuttered for six weeks already, he has been reciting the blessing in our den instead, where he is isolating because of his ongoing Covid-19 exposure as a physician. Days into the current Omer cycle, this floor plan suddenly made me want to share in his counting. Now I call down to him nightly, “Have you Omered?” I’m grateful when I keep him from forgetting.

It is striking to me that I remember the Omer at all, when it could well take me a full minute to recall the current day of the week, unless it is the date of a hard-won food delivery or Shabbat. Also, I misplaced my calendar, having set it aside before Passover, though what does it matter when my appointments have all been cancelled?

Perhaps this lost sense of time also accounts for my new investment in Omer-counting. The process provides structure and clarity. But mostly, there is something reassuring in its defined length — a fixed 49 days — as we face a quarantine of uncertain duration. Not that I’m kvetching. We have a Torah obligation to preserve life above all. Better safe indoors than sorry.

If we’ve perhaps gotten some sleep and are in a state of mind to look for them, there are insights and lessons to take away from this experience, especially about our need to loosen the control we think we have on the course of our lives. But the worry, the exhaustion and the many emotions running amok at full intensity may make it impossible for us to see them right now.

Each of us is struggling, and managing, in our own way. Our other challenges do not brake or even slow down for a public health crisis. Rather, it is on us to figure out how they will coexist with the corollaries of a pandemic — the close quarters and disruption in routine, and our anxieties about our jobs, finances and very lives.

I am usually glass half-full, and there are indeed moments that are easy, teeming with gratitude, laughter and memories in the making. But there are others that are rougher for our hearts to bear. It is then that I let The Shirelles croon in my head, “Mama said there will be days like this.” Indeed, both the upbeat, hopeful ones and those that make us feel we cannot hold out a minute longer.

The final chapter of the Torah describes a heart-wrenching scene that keeps replaying in my mind. God tells Moses, the beloved prophet who led us out from Egypt, that he may not enter the Land of Israel with his people. Moses pleads with Him — Let me cross. Let me see it. But his prayer is only partially answered when God offers him a panoramic view of the Promised Land from the distance of the mountain.

As I gaze out my window, Moses’ longing resonates. For now, I can only wonder when we will re-enter our world — picking up our lives, seeing family and friends, and returning to work, school and shul. On the day I write this, it has been 44 days, which is six weeks and two days of my family’s corona lockdown. But this is a marathon, not a sprint, and I know that the main thing — the only thing — is to make it safely across.

Merri Ukraincik, a regular contributor, lives in Edison, N.J., and is a columnist for the New Jersey Jewish News. Follow her at