For the Jewish people living in the desert, the first counting of the Omer must have been a breeze. These first Jews were literally counting down toward receiving the Torah, which they would experience first hand.
Today, counting the Omer is a relatively unsuccessful attempt to try to recreate that desert experience as we count down to Shavuot, in which we celebrate the revelation on Sinai. I call it unsuccessful because I know few Jews who are successful at actually completing the counting.
Why is this so?
It's not that the act of counting is challenging; rather, the challenge inherent in this mitzvah lies squarely in our ability not to get distracted and forget about it. Already hundreds of years ago, Jewish mystics wrote of gashmiyut, the concept of the material world serving as a major obstacle between us and the performance of mitzvot. I believe that this is the key to understanding why so many people are unsuccessful in counting the Omer.
The Israelites in the desert lived in a world with fewer distractions. Unlike other mitzvot that are tied to one particular moment, counting the Omer requires us to focus on counting for 49 days straight. We must count sheva shabbatot temimot, seven complete weeks, which very few of us have the discipline to do without getting distracted.
Unfortunately, the failure of so many Jews to count the Omer points to a larger lesson about the nature of the gashmiyut, the immaterial, and how it can hinder us from being able to appreciate the real material that is the fabric of our lives. To count the Omer successfully and to appreciate the holiday of Shavuot, we must enter into a different type of mindset that is countercultural to the world in which we live. So many of us misperceive the immaterial of our every day lives like computers, email, and television as being material. And why wouldn’t we? These objects help make our days more productive and help us count every day.
However, in reality, what is gashmiyut, immaterial, sinks us into an even deeper hole. Those of us who have been addicted to gashmiyut (see: World of Warcraft) understand how focusing on the material has a cumulative effect that runs directly counter to the concept of counting the Omer itself. When you are focused on the material, hours seem to run on, and you cannot achieve real focus. Counting the Omer, on the other hand, requires us to pull away and to enter into the world of the sacred.
Counting the Omer reminds us that things that are worthwhile and meaningful in life don’t happen at lightening speed and require focus. In fact, it is quite the opposite. A famous mishna from Berachot, for example, teaches us that early mystics would prepare for an hour to pray, then would pray, and would spend an hour winding down afterward. Gashmiyut, on the other hand, is what in life draws this focus toward other things like deadlines and fixed schedules. It expects us to move a mile a minute so that we are so exhausted at the end of the day that it becomes increasingly challenging for us to remember how to count. It reshifts our priorities from what should be priorities - family, life, God, and Torah - to what ought to be in essence non-priorities. This is why, I believe, so many Jews who would like to be successful in finding the time count the Omer never are.
A wise person once remarked that while it is common for people to count days it is a wise person who knows how to make every day count. This is what counting the Omer does for us in anticipation of Shavuot. Counting the Omer reminds us to be excited and to identify what is really material in our lives. This is how all of us can work toward making every day count.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.