On Chanukah, according to the ways and means of the study house of the master teacher, Hillel, we count up, i.e. we add a candle each night. During Sefirat HaOmer, too, we add to our (inner) light. Rather than counting down, i.e. rather than subtracting, as is the worldly custom when commemorating big events, such as when marking the beginning of the secular calendar year, or such as when signaling the beginning of a foot race, we Jews add on.
There’s hopefulness in our form of noting passage. From our manner of getting from one important juncture, e.g. the advent of Pesach, our deliverance to freedom, to another, e.g. the celebration of receiving the Torah, of Am Yisrael’s uniting with the cosmic guidebook designed to teach us how to maximize our experience of freedom, we work from a perspective of enhancement, more readily than we work from a perspective of loss.
In contrast, the secular calendar’s count down emphasizes missed opportunities and the Olympic clock’s tick stresses how, sometimes, it can become too late to achieve that for which we endeavor. Our temporal accentuation of the positive, alternatively, especially as that chronological burden is distributed over our day to day lives, that lesson of striving to augment by choice and not to deduct, has many important implications.
For instance, instead of bemoaning the changes in cognitive ability, physical grace and overall stamina, which accompany middle age, we are better advised to be grateful for our existent ambulation, metabolic health, and muscle tone. Our birthdays are festive for good reason; the alternative to aging, i.e. death, is not at all desirable. Once we leave this world, we have even fewer options for rectifying our actions than does the athlete who missed the starting gun or the stockbroker who failed, over a fiscal year, to meet a quota.
Similarly, when we inventory our material goods (such as many of us implicitly did during the span of prePesach/spring cleaning), it is far more of an advantage for us to evoke gratitude than for us to evoke denunciation. Everything in our lives is a gift from heaven, from our functioning circulatory systems to our amazing alimentary canals. We fail to function as vital humans when we remain stuck in condemnation more readily than when we allow ourselves to be elevated by praise. Whereas we might spout that “shiny things don’t really matter,” many of us, nonetheless, continue to act as though the person with the most “toys” wins.
Another case in which we are advised to tote up, not down, is in our tallying of our life experiences. Rare is the grownup, given their druthers, would ever again live their childhood or adolescence, no matter how wonderful those intervals seem in hindsight. Very young people are dependent on parents or on other care providers for food, for shelter, for medical care, and so forth. We had little or no autonomy when we were very young, inevitably, given that as children, we had limited facilities. Similarly, whereas when we were teens, we swayed between child-like sensibilities and adult corporeal form, then too, we were given limited freedoms. If we can recall select escapades from our high school years, then we can easily embrace why adults put constraints on older children.
Often, I’ve heard folks remark that whereas there younger decades were full of adrenaline rushes and of the kinds of adventures that they dare not currently undertake, given those adventures’ morally questionable or physically exhausting underpinnings, they would not want to repeat those experiences. Embellishing those recollections, especially through the lens of selective memory, for most people, is more than enough of a return to their pasts. As per younger years, no one wants to go back to diapers, playpens or other less-than-emancipated states.
Garnering mitzvot is yet another way in which we try to add up, not subtract from, our distinct moments. Not only at the end of our lives, when the Great Jury will adjudicate our goings on, but also during the course of our existence, we attempt to make choices concerning our actions, our words, and our thoughts, which will weigh favorably on the celestial scale. While this world is a mere passageway to a grand spiritual banquet, it is also the case that this world is our singular opportunity to bring together the merits that will station us in at a good strata when we are in a more permanent place.
Failure to perform acts of loving kindness in this world has dire consequence, has v’shalom, in the World to Come. As a result, though we humans can’t know the value of any single of our behaviors, we execute as many sound options as possible.
Finally, there is flame. Flame is both iconically and actually about totaling. Torah is flame. We try to add to our knowledge of and actualization of Torah ways. Life energy is flame. We try to add to our spiritual and physical well-being. Kindling candles, on Sabbath and on Hagim is flame. We try to improve the light with each successive taper that we light.
In the traditional, Jewish way of life, getting older, coming into possession of material goods, enacting mitzvot, lighting candles, learning Torah, and just exhaling/inhaling, i.e. showing up to live, all are examples of how we add to rather than subtract when we approach importance. Even as there are abundant mystical reasons why we count up preferably than down en route to Shavuot, they are not necessarily the province of our understanding. Acting to increase the merit in our lives, though, falls under all of our jurisdictions.
May this period of Sefirat HaOmer be one of adding on for all of you!