Zionism, Jewish Belonging and Counting the Omer

Dr. Samuel Lebens
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Dr. Samuel Lebens

The idea of counting the Omer is rather simple – every night between Passover and Shavuot we count, until we reach seven complete weeks; 49 days – but, for Zionists and members of the global Jewish community alike, this ritual has a deeper significance.

The basic theme of the Omer is to count the days between freedom from slavery, as is celebrated on Passover, and when we received the Torah, which is celebrated on Shavuot. Our freedom from slavery was never supposed to be the freedom to do whatever we want to do; it was also about accepting the responsibilities that come with freedom. It is not enough to remove the shackles of Egypt, but to stand up to the full height of our individual and collective potentials. As Isaiah Berlin puts it, our freedom from Egypt wasnt just about negative liberty; it was also about positive liberty.

And thus, we link the freedom of Passover to the responsibilities of Shavuot by counting down the days. The funny thing is that we dont count the days down; we count them up! Normally, if youre excited about something, you count down. As the parent of a four-year old, I know this phenomenon well: How many days until my birthday; how many days until Grandma and Grandpa come? Instead, in the hiatus between Passover and Shavuot, we count how many days have already passed, counting up from one until 49.

The classic explanation for this is that during the Omer, were not just counting the days until the day were looking forward to. Instead, were actively working toward something. We have a goal. Before we can receive the Torah on Shavuot, we need to work on ourselves, both individually and collectively. And thus, in the kabbalistic tradition, each of the 49 days corresponds to a distinct character trait that we have to perfect before the big day arrives. Each of the days between Passover and Shavuot is supposed to be an achievement in its own right; and thus, instead of crossing them off in an excited count-down; we count them up; clocking up each personal improvement that weve undergone.

Given this background, the Omer can take on another dimension of significance for those who count it. Not only are you trying to work on all of your flaws, but youre working toward a target, and you are doing so in concert with the rest of the Jewish people who undertake counting. You are part of something bigger than yourself; and, collectively, you are working to achieve a shared goal.

And this, in my opinion, is what demands our urgent attention. There is nothing more important for the sustained existence of a collective identity than the sharing of goals. Famously, Benedict Anderson described a nation as an imagined community. A nation exists because its members (and its non-members) imagine it to exist. Two Jews recognise each other as Jews, and this communal recognition (with all of its complexities, as some communities of Jews recognise more people than others) is what gives rise to the very notion of a Jewish identity. And, of course, this sense of mutual recognition will wither as people have less in common. A shared past can only do so much work. There is a risk that we, or at least the Jews of the West, become the people united by the history of the Holocaust. But as a sole platform of Jewish identity, that isnt much of a basis for the creation and sustenance of a vibrant and relevant peoplehood. What we need is a set of shared goals (or, what is more likely to happen, over-lapping sets of shared goals). We need, not only to be backward looking, but also forward looking.

What kept the secular Jewish identity alive for so long was the Zionist movement. Since the State of Israel was established, the sense of Zionist urgency has diminished to nothing. Furthermore, many Jews throughout the Diaspora are becoming less and less enamoured of Israel as it becomes ever deeper mired in territorial controversies, as it becomes a symbol to the West of everything that Jews generally stand against: injustice and racism. So what can serve as the glue to hold us together?

Jewish faith. As a religious Jew, I believe that Jewish faith and practice should and can serve as that glue. But, as a realist, I recognise that the Jewish people is always going to be larger (in our pre-messianic world) than the collection of religious Jews. So, with this recognition in hand; what can serve as our uniting principle?

An answer lies in how we count the Omer: We cannot thrive as a nation by simply looking backward. If Passover and Shavuot were just memorials to events that happened long ago, they would be mere shadows of the festivals that they really are. Israeli Independence day falls during the Omer. But if its just a day about past achievements then that day will fail to sustain our sense of collective identity. What the Omer asks is not, How do we remember the past together? but, How do we grow together toward goals that we share, in order to be worthy of our history?

And that is what the wider Jewish world needs: collective goals. Zionism, for instance, shouldnt just be about supporting Israel in a tribalistic fashion, like the fans of a football team, and Liberal Zionism shouldnt be about a smug group of self-righteous Jews letting off steam – that wont sustain a vibrant identity either. Rather, we need collective projects on the scale of the first Zionist Congress to take our destiny into our own hands and take active steps toward making Israel a truer reflection of our collective ideals. Thats what Zionism should be today, and Jewish belonging must be sustained by a sense of moving forward, counting up, not down.

Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.

A portrait of Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism, at the site of the declaration of Israel's independence.Credit: David Bachar

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