“What is that hanging off your light fixture?” a friend asked during a Shabbat dinner Zoom call.
“That’s my Omer counter,” I responded.
“How analog!” he teased. “I use my phone to count the Omer.”
The Omer, an often overlooked season of counting the fifty days between Passover and Shavuot, is one of my favorite Jewish rituals. During the Omer, at breakfast, I take down the thin metal chain and unhook the simple clasp. I add one colored bead to the chain each day. Some beads have significant colors: deep green for the week of Passover; red for Lag B’Omer, a festival with bonfires; black for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust remembrance day; white for Rosh Hodesh, the new moon. Everyday beads are in pastel shades of pink and green, blue and yellow.
Omer counters can vary a great deal: stringing paper chains, calendars with tabs that flip open, tokens stacked on pins, or an Omer-counting app on our mobile phones. But each method involves the same act of counting weeks and days for 50 days after the Passover holiday.
Nothing could be more real to me than counting, the most elemental form of grounding myself. As a child I tried to learn to count to ten in four languages. As early as I can remember, I was taught to count my blessings to help me go to sleep. As the trains rumbled by my childhood home, I counted the cars. During thunderstorms, I still count the seconds between the lightning flash and the thunderclap.
But I especially love the embodiment of counting the Omer, moving the number from my lips to my fingers, as I string another bead onto the chain, then clasp it over the fixture and watch it sway. A daily reminder that every day matters, that I have the chance at breakfast to make the day ahead better for myself and those I love.
Counting the Omer was an unwanted task for my two boys. When they were in elementary school, an eager young rabbi came up with the idea of Omer counters with beads on a chain. Parent volunteers assembled the packets, and the teachers distributed them to every family at the Jewish day school. The rabbi asked the children to wear the chains around their necks to school once a week so teachers could check their progress. Were they counting every day? Were the holiday beads in the right order?
Soon the parents rebelled. The home project frustrated little fingers. Children could not easily string the small beads on a slippery metal chain. The clasp was difficult. Without adults to help, beads tumbled to the floor and disappeared under appliances. Younger siblings might swallow the multi-colored beads, mistaking them for candy. And most children chafed at having to wear the chain to school, including my two boys, who found the entire endeavor ridiculous.
As with many school projects and adopted pets, I became the benevolent overlord. I strung the beads of the Omer counter each day and said the prayers with the boys at breakfast before our dash to school. I reviewed the calendar to ensure we observed the holidays that matched the correct bead on the chain. I could not force either child to demonstrate my handiwork to their teachers, so I simply hung the chain back on the light fixture and turned my attention to their backpacks and shoes. The project was deemed a failure and scrapped by the school after the first year.
I packed away the beads, chain and written instructions in our Passover box, where they resurfaced year after year. I continued to count the Omer, finding comfort in the daily routine. Over time, I added my own blessings and intentions to my Omer counting ritual. I recited a verse from Psalm 90: “Teach us to number our days that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.” I added my own reminder: “Every day counts.” My prayer book, also very analog, contained a meditation for each day of the Omer. In late May, on six weeks and one day of the Omer, I read: “The Sages taught that each of us is placed in the world to heal that which only we can heal. What is your unique (tikkun) healing mission?” Tikkun is a Hebrew term for mending or repair, a Jewish value.
During the pandemic, I did what I could to heal myself. I joined an online meditation class about anxiety. I breathed in: One, two, three, four. I breathed out: One, two, three, four. I did a body scan: Where was the fear? Where was the pain? Breathing out the fear, the tension: One, two, three, four.
“Have you heard from the college yet?” I asked my homebound son one day, my meditation practice forgotten.
“It’s opening on schedule on August 25. Fifty-five days away!” He is counting down the days until he returns to his normal life, his own apartment, his friends and roommate, the peers he can count on to share his frustrations with professors and his successes when he completes a project. Friends who, unlike his mother, never ask: “Have you finished that assignment yet?” Friends who, unlike his mother, often say: “Hey, wanna join me for a beer?”
While my son was home on pandemic exile from college, he joined me only once for the morning ritual of counting the Omer. He was unable to sleep the night before and came down early for his usual breakfast of frozen waffles smeared with peanut butter and maple syrup. With a scruffy beard and unkempt hair, adrift in this childhood home, neither teen nor fully adult, he wore headphones, eyes glued to a laptop on the kitchen table.
“Want to join me?” I asked as I unclasped the chain.
Politely, he pulled back the headphones. I offered him a bead to place on the chain. He shook his head and waved the bead away. Perhaps, dreaded memories from day school paralyzed his fingertips.
I strung a yellow bead and counted: “Today is two weeks and five days of the Omer. Teach us to number our days that we may obtain a heart of wisdom. Every day counts.” I smiled at him, a little shy about sharing out loud my personal meditation.
“Why do you still use this kindergarten game, Mom? Can’t you get a real one?”
The question was rhetorical. He put his headphones back on as I considered my reply.
Because of you, I thought to myself. After five miscarriages, I had once counted the weeks and days of my pregnancy with you, just like I counted the weeks and days of the Omer. Because every time I pull out this Omer counter at Passover, I remember your little round face, your fumbling fingers, your little boy voice and its sweet complaining. And I remember how, for a brief time, we did this together.
Instead of giving him an answer, I stood to clear his plate and mine, placed them in the sink, and returned to kiss him on the top of his head.
Today is six weeks, four days of the Omer. I string a pink bead on the chain and re-hang it on the light fixture, where it swings gently. The world is still in the middle of a global pandemic. The daily news counts the mounting numbers of people who have died of Covid-19, and the numbers infected with the virus. Minnesota Public Radio news notes that the death count in Minnesota has reached 881. The number of people infected with the virus: 21,315. Eleven percent of those are health care workers.
On this day, the 46th day of the Omer and Memorial Day on the secular calendar, a Black man named George Floyd will be murdered by a police officer in my city. On this day, the entire nation will begin to count the mostly unarmed men and women of color killed by police. In our city alone: Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd.
“Say their names!” our Black neighbors call to us, implore us to count with them heinous incidents of racism. The mothers of sons and daughters lost to senseless violence cry out. While I count the Omer for my own comfort, their voices challenge me to count what is uncomfortable; to be a witness to their suffering.
On this 46th day of the Omer, the swinging of the Omer chain has come to stillness. I add a private counting of my own despair: the accumulation of lost days. How long has it been since I hugged my 95-year-old mother, who is tucked away in a local senior high rise? Eighteen weeks and two days. How long has my son been relocated to his childhood bedroom, with murals of baby animals on the walls, after evacuating his dorm room in a distant city to continue his learning in isolation online? Sixteen weeks and four days. How long did I bar my older son and his girlfriend from joining us in person for Shabbat dinner? Seven weeks.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, a world in which our elders are isolated when they most need human contact, there is counting. In a broken world where we misunderstand and mistreat one another because of our skin color, where buildings burn and mothers protest, there is counting. When it is easy to feel lost, or angry, or hopeless, there is counting. The very act of holding the bead in between my fingers, the simplicity of stringing the bead on a metal chain, teaches me to pause. To collect myself. To strive to live with wisdom. To be.
Reading the Omer meditation again, I take a breath and search for its meaning: What am I supposed to heal in this world? Is it my mother? The burning streets of Minneapolis? A world on edge with anxiety and distrust? Or the young man with headphones trying to complete his sophomore year in college at my kitchen table? I long for a heart of wisdom to do this much-needed Tikkun work.
Wherever I am in the count, near the start or near the finish, I am today in a place of patience—even for a moment, acceptance. And in counting there is also hope that another tomorrow will arrive with the sun, and so will I, to be present and to count again. After one comes two, and after two, three, and then four. The sheer consistency and familiarity of counting is like a mother’s love.
This piece was read as part of a sermon in the summer of 2020 at Adath Jeshurun in Minnetonka, Minnesota.