Ba’Omer or La’Omer? The Joy and Pain of Time

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The ticking of the clock is uniformly, maddeningly constant.  Tick, tick, tick.  In equal, perfectly differentiated, precise segments.  One second after another.  Tick, tick, tick.  A minute.  An hour.  One day.  Another.  Then a week.  A month.  A year.  A lifetime.  Could you imagine how terrible it would be if the totality of our experience of time was as unchanging as its actual measure?

The clock is relentless, objective, mechanical.  But G-d has created us to be the opposite; we have been created to be subjective, 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.

Jewish time is anything but uniform.  The week is a continual crescendo to the Sabbath.  With the Sabbath’s arrival, we celebrate joyously only to reluctantly say farewell at havdalah before we start the cycle again.  The 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.

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, 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.  Our sefirah, or counting, is celebrated first on the thirty-third of the counting (Lag Ba’Omer or Lag LaO’mer among the Sephardim) and the at the culmination of the counting, Shavuot.

Why “pause” at Lag Ba’Omer to celebrate 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 Ba’Omer 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.

We count time and find meaning in the events that define moments in time. But still, if these moments simply “happen upon us,” then the meaning and significance that we find would be fleeting at best. The very movement of time imbued with meaning carries power.

We anticipate the coming of a special occasion. Our actions and our thoughts bring us into ever sharper focus on the event and the celebration. Indeed, the occasion itself can be seen as a culmination of anticipatory moments. Isn’t this the sense we have when we celebrate a siyum (completion)?

In Judaism, we learn that our accomplishments are reason for joy and religious satisfaction. For religious and learned Jews, 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…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 ba’Omer or la’Omer? Is the difference between the two a mere prepositional variance? Do we count on the Omer or do we count to the Omer? 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 so-called grammatical difference between these two formulations is the question, do you count to the current moment or do you count forward?

There was a time in my life when I would have wrestled with the question with the dispassionate air of a student. I would have viewed it as an interesting question, worthy of thoughtful discussion. However, not long ago, I received a personal lesson on the power of counting.

When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, I was told that I would have to undergo forty-five radiation treatments. Forty-five treatments. The number seemed astronomical. Never ending. How could I endure such a course?

I possess a simple, pocket OU luach.

I took the luach from my shirt pocket and began to mark in it, “1” for the first treatment, “2” for the second and so on, until all forty-five treatments were noted and the coming siyum, when I prayed to G-d that my cancer would be healed was concrete, a day on my calendar.

So each day of my personal sefira, I reported for treatment and found myself laying face up on the table for about fifteen minutes, having a very deep conversation with G-d. By the second or third treatment, I knew the psalms and prayers that could fit perfectly into my treatment time – some repeated more than once, naturally. My prayers were prayers both of gratitude at having made it thus far in my life (ba’Omer) and pleas for a complete recovery (la’Omer). I knew how far I’d gotten, and how much further I hoped to go.

On the table, I came to fully understand that, though the brachah (blessing) for the sefirah is the same, there is a profound difference between counting ba’Omer and la’Omer. 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.

A siyum captures both at the same moment, filling us with both joy and the power of awareness.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.  

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.