Counting Our Blessings
by Audrey Merwin
In the movie White Christmas, Bing Crosby croons:
When I’m worried and I can’t sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
And I fall asleep counting my blessings
Crosby, playing the entertainer Bob Wallace, sings this lullaby to calm the fears of a worried youngster. His warm, soothing tones give substance to the words and create a setting of hope and comfort. What if anything does this have to do with the commandment to count the omer? Quite a lot, as it turns out.
An omer is a measure of grain, in this case, barley. In the days of Temple worship, we were to bring the first sheaf of barley to the Temple, followed by other items, as a sacrifice (Leviticus 9–14). Then, in Leviticus 15–16 we are told, “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal” (see also Deuteronomy 16:9–10). While tradition records some controversy over exactly when the counting was to begin, the command to count was clear.
Why do we count the omer? In Jewish Living, Rabbi Mark Washofsky writes, “Reform Judaism has generally regarded this ‘counting’ as a regulation of the calendar.” In other words, it’s a way to make sure Shavuot will take place exactly seven weeks after Pesach, so the spring harvest will conclude with Shavuot. Jewish tradition considers counting the omer a mitzvah that connects our liberation at Pesach with its fulfillment in the giving of the Torah at Shavuot. Yet another way to understand it is to see counting the omer through the lens of the ancient farmer.
In a largely agrarian society, the Israelites were highly dependent of the whims of the natural elements. Sun, storms, rain, wind, and insects were beyond their control and could severely affect their livelihood—even their very survival. In the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the people were in a state of limbo, vacillating between fear that weather or pests would destroy the harvest and hope for a bountiful crop. Counting the days could certainly have been a steadying factor, a way to dispel doubts and focus prayers and dreams toward God, and strengthen faith while away from the Temple. There were no sacrifices specified for the time between Pesach and Shavuot, so the practice of counting the omer was as much for the benefit of the people as it was for God—it gave them a way to count their blessings.
The song continues:
When my bankroll is getting small
I think of when I had none at all…
But consider these words as an alternative: “I think of those who have nothing at all.”
The new lyrics bring to mind activities that occur once we have reached the end of the harvest—in particular, pe’ah, the leaving of grain in the corners of your field for others to glean. In the Torah, the commandment for pe’ah comes directly after the discussion of Shavuot, “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God” (Leviticus 23:22, see also Leviticus 19:9−10, Deuteronomy 24:19). This commandment evokes some of our most treasured values, tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” and g’milut chasadim, “deeds of loving-kindness.” When we devote ourselves to fulfilling these values, the actions we take reflect back on us and we can go to sleep counting our blessings.
Audrey Merwin edits Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah.