We Are a People That Really Like Counting!

by Arliene Botnick, April 1, 2021

From the very beginning of our Torah, counting has played a significant role in our Jewish story, and usually the counting is counting up. We began on day one when God created light (y’hee or) and we count up each day – day two, day three, day four and it’s on day 4 that God created the sun, the moon, and the stars. This gives us pause to think about what was the light that was created on day one, when the sun and the moon and the stars were not created until day 4. Perhaps God‘s Spirit is that 1st light, a light that radiates through our history (when coming down from Sinai, Moses’ face radiated light) and we continue counting till we get to day seven, which is the gift and blessing of creation, the Shabbat, our day of rest. We are like God, created in God’s image and commanded to rest, as God did, from our labours.

Counting plays a part in many of our biblical stories. In the desert, Moses was commanded to take a census count of the people of Israel so that they should pay a ransom to Adonai, and everyone who was entered into the census at the age of 20 ended up paying a tax. Much later on, in the Mishnah around the year 200, our Rabbis count the age of children. At the age of five, a child is ready for the study of Torah; at the age of 10, for the study of Mishnah; and at the age of 13, for the fulfilment of the Commandments. Thus, at the age of 13, our children become bar and bat mitzvah and we can count them as part of a minyan. In that same section of Mishnah, the Rabbis also say that if one reaches the age of 100, it’s as if that person were already dead and had passed away and ceased from the world. I guess in those days living to 100 really was exceptional!

Sometimes we were told that we shouldn’t count at all. From the prophet Hosea, chapter 2 verse one, we read that “the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea not to be measured or counted.” Sands of the sea are impossible to count. But let’s get back to counting. In Sh’lach L’cha – Numbers 13 – we read about Moses sending the scouts to check out the land that the Israelites are about to enter, and Moses counts on 12 scouts to bring back a unified report. Unfortunately, 10 are in agreement, but not with the answer God and Moses wanted. They reported that the Israelites wouldn’t be able to conquer the land. Only Joshua and Caleb, of the 12, have enough faith in God to say yes, the Israelites can conquer the land, the land that God promised our people as far back as Abraham who was told “Lech Lecha to the land I will show you.” The number 10 relates to the number that identifies what can be considered a community, and we continue to count up to 10 to make sure we have a minyan – a critical mass of community – in order that certain prayers can be said during a service, like the mourners’ Kaddish. Often the minchag, the custom, is to count in a unique way; we would often say “not one, not two, not three” until we got to “not 10” and then we have our minyan and the full service can take place.

And now we are once again in the counting mode. From the second night of Passover, we began counting the omer, a sheaf of barley, each day for 49 days, connecting the holiday of Passover historically, spiritually, and agriculturally to the holiday of Shavuot. Passover is a spring holiday, in the first month of the year, Nissan, when, as a people, we are commanded to count time not as slaves but as a free people. So even though we celebrate Rosh Hashanah in the seventh month as our New Year, Nissan is the first month of the year, also considered a New year. The month of Nissan is the beginning of Spring. The agricultural nature of this time of the year is acknowledged as we put on our Seder plate an egg, symbolizing life, and the karpas, symbolizing the greenery of spring. We continue this agricultural tie for 49 days as the Omer is counted, until we reach the 49th day where a new harvest of wheat began. The omer counting also has an historical connection to our Exodus story. Our flight from Egypt, after about 3 months – more or less the omer counting days – brings us to Sinai, on the sixth day of the month of Sivan – that’s the 50th day after the second night of Passover – and it shows that our physically being freed from bondage must climax at Sinai when we can be spiritually unshackled and free to pray to God and confirm our brit – covenant with God. We stand at Sinai and say we will do and we will hear – Na’aseh v’nishmah. During this 49 days of counting, we also have a special day. On the 33rd day, called Lag B’Omer, we celebrate what might’ve been a military victory or cessation of a plague, and there are many customs associated with this this day. It is a time of outdoor picnics, games of archery, weddings take place since the other days of counting the omer are considered days of mourning on which weddings may not occur. One enjoyable custom is to cut our children’s hair for the first time on this 33rd day, usually at the age of 3. We shouldn’t forget the wonderful lamb Bar-B-Q’s that take place in Israel on Mount Meron.

Fascination with counting or compulsion to count still continues today as each day we listen to the count of the number of Covid cases, the number of Covid tests, the number of hospitalizations, the number of deaths. At this time, except for the number of tests, we want the numbers to decrease. But, each day, we have to, in a positive way, count another day of our lives. Each day, we have to live our lives as best we can under the necessary health restrictions imposed on us so that we can keep one another safe, We need to count on one another to help stem this pandemic. Counting can be arduous, challenging, upsetting, but we have learned there are some things that we can count on. Shabbat comes every week! What a gift! Our children become Bar/Bat Mitzvah at the age of 13. That’s a future we count on! We have at least 10 for services, our minyan. Solel is our community. Counting the omer reminds us that we survived 430 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering in the desert and we were able, as a free people, stand at Sinai, confirming our partnership, our brit with God. Let’s keep counting each day of our lives. We will survive Covid. Let’s count on that which is so precious to us – our families, our children, our community!

Everybody please stay healthy and eventually will all see one another. I’m counting on it

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