Imagine for a moment it’s New Year’s Eve. Ten, nine, eight; the bottle of champagne is opened. Seven, six, five; your cell phone receives a text message from a far away friend. Four, three, two; you gather your loved-one close ready for the New Year’s kiss. One; the clock strikes midnight, Auld Lang Syne begins to play and a New Year begins yet again.
Invariably, this is where I feel the letdown. “That’s it?” I ask. “All that waiting, the gathering of friends, the suspenseful countdown, and that’s it, one lonely zero?" But ultimately this is the unavoidable nature of any kind of countdown: it ends. The countdown itself may be fun for a little while, but it never lasts.
This is not the case with “countups”. Now, you may not have heard of this term “countup”, and that is because it is not actually a word; but rest assured, it is something we are all familiar with. There are all kinds of “countups” in life: birthdays for example are “countups” (because it would be quite depressing if we were counting down!), as are anniversaries. There is a crucial difference between counting up and counting down, and our Jewish tradition has a lot to teach about the discrepancy.
The most famous debate with regard to “countups” versus “countdowns” is found in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b:
“Our Rabbis taught with regard to the commandment of Hanukkah: The House of Shammai says: On the first night we light eight candles, from there on we subtract one candle each night, ending with one lone candle. The House of Hillel says however: On the first night we light one candle, from there on we add one candle each night, ending with eight candles.”
Although this Tannaitic teaching - a text dating to the time of the Mishnah - records the argument, it does not specify the reasoning as to why each of the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel did it their own way. Five hundred years later, an Amoraic rabbi, a rabbi of the Talmud, named Rav Yosi bar Zavida offered his own interpretation as to their reasoning. He explains that the House of Shammai decides to count down because that is the nature of the number of sacrifices listed in the Book of Bamidbar: decreasing with each day of the given festival. The House of Hillel, on the other hand, bases its practice of counting up on the rabbinic precept of “Maalin bakodesh, veein moridin”, in matters of holiness we should always ascend and never descend. In other words – it is always better to count up to something important than to count down to the inevitable loneliness of zero.
So who wins in a battle between the great and ever-arguing houses of Hillel and Shammai? All you have to do is simply think back to Hanukkah and our own modern practice to determine that the halakha, the Jewish Law, almost always sides with the House of Hillel.
We currently find ourselves in the annual “countup’” known as Sefirat Ha’omer, the Counting of the Omer. Every night, we add a numeral to the count – approaching the moment of holiness when the Children of Israel received the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot.
In the 15th verse of the 23rd chapter of Sefer Vayikra the Torah tells us:
“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering, the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven complete weeks.”
This verse of course is the basis for the mitzvah, the commandment, of counting the Omer, which is one of the simplest, yet somehow most difficult, mitzvot in the entire Torah. How is it simple? All you have to do is count each night, starting with the second night of Passover, all the way until we reach the holiday of Shavuot seven weeks later. You don’t have to go to Home Depot, like on Sukkot, or stock up with matzah before Passover; all you have to do is remember to count, each and every day of the Omer.
How is it difficult? It is difficult because you have to remember to count. In fact, the Halakhah even adds an incentive (or punishment, depending on how you see it) to motivate you in your counting: if you miss one complete day, that is if you forget to count one night, and don’t remember until after sundown the next night, you’re out of the game. The rabbis tell us that you can continue to count if you want, but not with the brakhah that accompanies the performance of this mitzvah. Forget one day, and you might as well pack up your bags for the next seven weeks.
Why is it so difficult to remember to count each night, one by one, until the magic number of 49? One answer is that it is simply not in our nature to take life one day at a time. The perceived “length” of our lives does not lend itself to counting by days. Instead, we prefer to mark the months, the years, and the decades.
Yet, I believe, there are two main reasons as to why the Torah’s asks of us to pause and count each and every day out loud for a period of seven weeks. In addition to traditional reasoning, within the act of counting the 49 days between the Exodus from Egypt and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai are the spiritual underpinnings of the commandment.
The counting of the Omer is an enforced way of slowing down, of taking the time to notice the blessed passing of each and every day. We too often rush through life, watching as days blend into one another. We find ourselves exclaiming, “Life moves so fast,” bemoaning the fact that we cannot simply stop to enjoy each day anew. And so, in response, the Torah offers us the spiritual practice of counting the Omer – to pause and recognize the potential energy and the profound possibilities of each and every day.
So on New Year’s Eve, why is it that I always feel such a letdown at the end of the countdown? I believe the answer can be found in the result. If we are merely counting down to something, then that thing is, by definition, finite. It is limited; it disappears as quickly as it arrives. But if, instead, we “count up” to something, we desire it to be infinite, to be unlimited, to be everlasting. And so we celebrate the timelessness of Torah and the importance of each and every day when we commit ourselves to counting the Omer, because, “In matters of holiness we should always ascend, and never descend.”
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish summer camping experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.