Why Are So Many Jews Unsuccessful at Counting the Omer?

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.

Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Celebrating Shavuot in the Jezreel Valley. 2,900 years ago Elijah outdueled the prophets of Baal in this area.
Celebrating Shavuot in the Jezreel Valley. 2,900 years ago Elijah outdueled the prophets of Baal in this area.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Dan Dorsch
Rabbi Dan Dorsch

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.

Click the alert icon to follow topics:

Comments

SUBSCRIBERS JOIN THE CONVERSATION FASTER

Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

SUBSCRIBE
Already signed up? LOG IN

ICYMI

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

The projected rise in sea level on a beach in Haifa over the next 30 years.

Facing Rapid Rise in Sea Levels, Israel Could Lose Large Parts of Its Coastline by 2050

Tal Dilian.

As Israel Reins in Its Cyberarms Industry, an Ex-intel Officer Is Building a New Empire

Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III and a British synagogue.

How the Queen’s Death Changes British Jewry’s Most Distinctive Prayer

Newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Chile, Gil Artzyeli, poses for a group picture alongside Rabbi Yonatan Szewkis, Chilean deputy Helia Molina and Gerardo Gorodischer, during a religious ceremony in a synagogue in Vina del Mar, Chile last week.

Chile Community Leaders 'Horrified' by Treatment of Israeli Envoy

Queen Elizabeth attends a ceremony at Windsor Castle, in June 2021.

Over 120 Countries, but Never Israel: Queen Elizabeth II's Unofficial Boycott