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Rethinking Jewish Life: How do we measure our days?

This Sfirat Hahofesh of the counting of these days could become a new ritual connecting the experiences of our past to the dreams of our future.

Lag Baomer bonfire
Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem
Does the State of Israel change how we should see ourselves as a people? Does it affect how we observe Jewish tradition? These should be the two most pressing questions of these weeks between Passover and Shavuot. Passover celebrates the opportunities of redemption and Shavuot the responsibilities of Torah. But how do we understand the journey from freedom to redemption in our time? Jewish tradition focuses on the preparatory power of counting the days – Counting the Omer – between these two climactic moments.

The origins of this ritual can be found in the Bible, which describes the literal counting of sheaves of omer (Leviticus 23:15-16), but rabbinic literature and later interpretations have given the counting ritual much larger meaning.

By counting the Omer, by counting the days and weeks between these two foundational holidays, we emerge both more conscious of the undeniable connection between the two holidays and more prepared for the act of receiving the Torah anew on Shavuot. It allows for a period of heshbon nefesh, of deep soul searching, teshuva (repentance) and thus the capacity to be prepared to receive the Torah. We certainly can’t be open to internalizing the laws of an ethical community if we aren’t prepared to be ethical as individuals. Only in this way can we make freedom meaningful. Aren’t these the most powerful lessons of Judaism? Customs of being in semi-mourning during this period because of its association with a plague that killed 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva (ca. 40-137 CE) mean – for many traditional Jews – the corollary mourning observances of not getting married or having any other kinds of public celebrations and not shaving or getting haircuts during this period. Some end the semimourning at Lag Ba’omer (the 33rd day of the Omer, weeks before Shavuot). This heightened sense of time makes us more aware of what our narrative of journeying toward Sinai means.

But perhaps contemporary experience ought to call this long period of semi-mourning into question.

Given the existence of the State of Israel, how can one continue to mourn – even symbolically – after celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day? While it makes sense to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers in this period of collective semi-mourning, how can we continue to mourn after Yom Ha’atzmaut? Does not the establishment of the State of Israel change everything about how we understand and ritualize Jewish existence? Shouldn’t we recognize that we are not living in Rabbi Akiva’s day of political powerlessness but rather in an age of unprecedented sovereignty and military power? Can’t we cut short our historical mourning and focus more on how we celebrate the possibilities and responsibilities of having a state? In a profound essay entitled “Auschwitz or Sinai?” the late Rabbi Prof. David Hartman spoke to the impact the State of Israel should have on our self-understanding. Hartman wrote the radical essay at the end of the First Lebanon War, arguing that one cannot be trapped by a sense of victimhood but that rather Israel must choose to orient itself not according to Auschwitz but according to the ethical demands of Sinai.

In an effort to embrace the complexity and “total exposure” of the political realities of a Jewish state, Hartman wrote: “We must define who we are by what we do and not by any obsession with the long and noble history of Jewish suffering. In coming back to our land and rebuilding our nation, we have chosen to give greater moral weight to our actions in the present than to noble dreams of the future or to memories of our historic past.”

The mourning should end – or at least be significantly reduced – at Yom Ha’atzmaut.

Let the weddings in Zion go forth into celebration and let us focus on who we want to be now, what we want this country and this people to mean today for us and for the world. If the period between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers is compared to the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, let the period between Yom Ha’atzmaut and Shavuot turn our focus to the gifts and responsibilities of sovereignty and power.

We could call it: Sfirat Hahofesh – Counting Freedom – or even the meaning of what it means to be a free people in our homeland with unprecedented capacity to redeem ourselves and others.

Such a new focus on the meaning of the gift of our power during these weeks between celebrating our political independence and receiving the Torah could be palliative. This Sfirat Hahofesh of the counting of these days could become a new ritual connecting the experiences of our past to the dreams of our future. It would certainly give new meaning to the verse from Psalms (90:12) we say after the Omer counting each night: “Teach us to treasure our days so that we will attain a heart of wisdom.”

Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi is a rabbi and PhD, has served for over a decade as a senior scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute and teaches at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.


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