Counting Up, Counting Down

hero image

Physicists teach us that the movement of time is constant through space.  It moves on and on with the precision and consistency of the finest timepiece.  Tick, tick, tick.  At times reassuring.  Other times maddening.  Tick, tick, tick.  We measure our lives by these perfectly precise segments.  Tick, tick, tick.  Sixty to a minute.  Sixty minutes to an hour.  Twenty-four hours to the day.  A week.  A month.  A year.

A lifetime.

Yet how terrible a lifetime measured with the same uniform sameness as this constant movement of time!

It is true, the clock is as relentless as time itself.  No amount of argument, resistance, or protest can slow it.  Time is an objective truth but, fortunately, God has seen fit to create man with a different, subjective quality; we have been created to engage with the world and with each other in such a way as to animate and give meaning to our experiences within the context of time.  Certain moments and days are more significant than others.  The birth of a child or grandchild.  A wedding.

How we use time matters.

Time, as rendered by the physicist, is precise and constant.  Jewish time is anything but.  The Jewish week is not a measure of seconds by minutes, by hours and by days but rather a continual crescendo rising to the Sabbath.  With the Sabbath’s arrival, we celebrate joyously only to reluctantly say farewell at havdalah before we start the cycle again.  With our celebrations and rituals, our Jewish year is an uneven temporal landscape, where festivals and holidays, solemn observances and fasts alter the meaning and significance of what might otherwise be just another day or season, just another moment in time.

* * *

During no period are we any more conscious of the movement of time toward a festival as we are now, during the sefira, the counting of the Omer.  Each day, as we count the period from the second day of Passover through Shavuot.  Each day, rather than measuring the ticking of time, we are to mark the day with the counting of the Omer.

We are not unique in counting in anticipation of a special event.  What bride – in any culture or place – does not count in anticipation of her “special day”?  However, in this counting, as Rabbi Shraga Simmons notes in his article, “Make the Omer Count” (, most people, in anticipation of a special day or moment, count “down” toward the celebration.  Not Jews.  Not during the counting of the Omer.  We count “up.”

Is the distinction important?

To a people who find meaning in a single letter in a single pasuk, of course the distinction is important!  Before addressing that importance, Rabbi Simmons suggests we first need to consider why God waited fifty days from our redemption to delivering to us the Torah.

His answer is that we were not yet spiritually ready to receive the Torah.  After generations of slavery in Egypt, we were not only subjugated, but we were in a society well-known for its immorality, immorality that could not help but seep into our consciousness even without our participation in it.  We needed time to distance ourselves from both.

We needed to progress slowly, one step, one day at a time.  It is interesting to note that unlike other observances and holidays, the Torah does not give a date for Shavuot, just that it takes place at the end of fifty days.  The lesson Rabbi Simmons takes from this is that we are to “get there” at our own pace.  One step at a time.

In counting the Omer, we are counting toward a personal and spiritual goal.  We are building up not counting down.

And then, during our sefirah, our counting, we pause.  We pause to celebrate on the thirty-third of the counting (Lag BaOmer or Lag LaOmer) and the at the culmination of the counting, Shavuot.

Pause?  How can we pause?  Isn’t the counting like time, constant and unchanging?  And why at Lag BaOmer when the Torah makes no mention of the holiday?

One reason for the holiday is that it is the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  Another, is the link between Lag BaOmer and the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Roman Empire.

In both cases, we see a clear example of finding meaning and significance in a moment in Jewish time.  Meaning and significance is the way that time “slows”.  We count time and find meaning in the events that define moments in time.

* * *

Anticipation focuses us on a moment in time.   Indeed, a special event itself can be seen as a culmination of anticipatory moments.  We look forward to a moment and then… we arrive.  This is when we celebrate a siyum.

In Judaism, we learn that our accomplishments are reason for joy and religious satisfaction.  For a religious and learned Jew there is no greater joy than that found in celebrating a siyum; celebrating the privilege of having had the opportunity to complete a significant part of Torah.

And yet… and yet… just as time does not stop we find that we never enjoy unbridled joy when we celebrate a siyum.  I have often wondered at the strange, mixed emotion of the siyum.  There is joy, absolutely, but also something else – an anxiety, a sadness, a sense, perhaps, of depletion.  Why should a moment of such joy and accomplishment be tinged with any kind of negative emotion?

Even in our moments of joy, when time seems to be the repository of such powerful meaning, time is still time.  It cannot be what it is not.  It moves on, relentless.  So, in addition to our accomplishments, there is the awareness of finality, of passing a moment of which the long road of life has fewer and fewer ahead.

Our ability to anticipate is diminished, not by the anticipation itself but by our awareness that the road ahead is shortened.  It is a blessing to celebrate an eighty-fifth birthday, but can one celebrate such a birthday without the awareness that, unlike when he was a young man of twenty, there cannot be more than a handful of such moments yet ahead?

It is as if, while listening to a brilliant pianist practicing, it was possible to hear the soft echo of the metronome growing louder.  The constant, steady beat intruding just enough to enter one’s awareness, even as the beauty of the playing remains dominant.

The genuine Jew wants not only to celebrate the joys of yesterday, but even more to anticipate the hopes of tomorrow.  But the awareness of time continuing cannot help but begin to color that anticipation.

With age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes greater awareness.  I know a man who, when gazing at his friends and family that had gathered to celebrate his daughter’s wedding, felt a clouding over his heart.  Even as he enjoyed the event, an event he and his family had anticipated for many months with ever growing excitement, he knew that the moment was passing and there was no way to hold it.

So, we count; we engage in our personal sefira.

The question for each of is, do we count baOmer or laOmer?  Do we count on the Omer or do we count to the Omer?  Is it a difference without distinction or does the difference point to a profound understanding about time and the meaning we seek in our lives?  Like anything else, what might appear to many to be an insignificant alteration has the potential to teach us powerful lessons.  Inherent in the small “grammatical” difference between these two formulations is the question, do you count to the current moment or do you count beyond, do you count forward?

The b’racha for the sefira is the same in either case, but it is important that we count to know where we are… and where we are yet to go.   Some of our greatest sages, including Rav Soloveitchik and the Brisker Rav understood this.  They used both expressions.  After all, life is a combination of all there has been and all that is yet to come.  The power of the siyum is that it captures both at the same moment, filling us with both joy and the ache of knowing that time will continue.