Counting the Omer with IfNotNow

The time between the second night of Passover until the beginning of Shavuot marks the counting of the Omer. During this period, every night after evening prayers, we count out loud, announcing how many days and weeks have passed since the beginning of Pesach. We continue for seven weeks, counting upwards one night at a time, until we reach the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. This period of counting can mean many things.

On the simplest level, the Counting of the Omer commemorates the gathering of the barley harvest, which traditionally begins on Passover, and counts towards the wheat harvest, which begins on Shavuot. But on a deeper level, this period is a time of eager anticipation between our redemption from Mitzrayim, the land of Egypt, on Passover, and our receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. Our redemption from the narrow places of Mitzrayim was only a partial redemption — it wasn’t until receiving the Torah seven weeks later that we were truly free. Our ancestors knew this; they knew that even in the midst of the Exodus, their freedom was not yet complete. They needed both the negative mission of rejecting Mitzrayim, and the positive mission of receiving and fulfilling Torah. Texts in the Midrash, an early compilation of Torah commentary, imagine our ancestors counting eagerly in the desert, not content to bask in their partial freedom, but instead eagerly surging towards their true redemption, which was waiting just on the horizon.

Yet while the Counting of the Omer is a period of eager anticipation, it’s also a period of mourning. During this time, plague and persecution killed thousands of Torah scholars and students of Rabbi Akiva. The loss was so great that some were afraid that the Torah would be lost entirely. In commemoration of this loss, and other losses that it has also become traditional to honor during this time, many people take on some measure of morning practices by abstaining from listening instrumental music, having weddings, buying new clothes, or getting haircuts. This mourning period also marks the ways in which partial redemption still contains violence and pain — as we eagerly await our fuller redemption, the still-broken state of the world calls us to mourn at the same time as we celebrate and anticipate. At the end of these seven weeks comes Shavuot, bringing new Torah, new potential, and perhaps, a new, more complete redemption from the narrow places we’ve been stuck in.

As we count the Omer as IfNotNow, we take time to both celebrate the liberation that we have already experienced, and to look forward to the truer freedom we are still waiting for. We know that while our community still supports the oppression of Palestinians, while we individually and collectively fail to fully show up for both others and ourselves here in America, and while we allow ourselves to be led from a place of fear and trauma, we are not truly free. Come count the Omer with us and show us what your vision for a liberated, joyous Jewish community can look like!

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