Last year, when my son that has a seizure disorder went for a long time without any seizures, I woke up every morning and prayed to thank God for a certain number of days he was seizure free. Every day the number went up until it was over 240 days. Had he remained seizure free there would be no upper limit to my count. Every year, beginning at Passover (or in the tradition of the Sadducees beginning at the Sabbath following Passover) the Law of Moses required a similar count; only this count had an upper limit of fifty.
And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the sabbath, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the wave offering; seven sabbaths shall be complete: Even unto the morrow after the seventh sabbath shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall offer a new meat offering unto the LORD. (Leviticus 23:15-16)
This period of time has come to be known as “counting the Omer.” An omer was a dry measure of grain. After the Passover, the barley harvest was celebrated by bringing an omer of barley to the Tabernacle/Temple. This began the count until the fifty days were complete and it was time for the wheat harvest. Thus the mandated counting became associated with the first measure of barley brought to the priests after the Passover.
What is the value of this counting, and the holiday (Shavuos/Pentecost) at the end of it? Why did God mandate such a count? He could have said “fifty days after Passover you shall bring a grain offering.” Instead he specified, “count unto you” fifty days. There must be some value to the counting.
In the twelfth century, Moses Maimonides, a great Jewish thinker in Spain, proposed that the counting of the days from the release from Egypt (Passover) to the giving of the Law on Sinai (Shavuos) showed that freedom without law was an empty promise. The fifty day count was a commemorative count down (or technically a count up) to the completion of freedom in the giving of the Law. It was an anticipation of better things. True freedom was acceptance of the Law of God, and it was necessary to count the days until the true freedom could be celebrated.
In this way it differs slightly from my count of seizure-free days. There the count was open ended and was a count from a last event. In the counting to Pentecost it is a finite count; even though it is a count up, every day points out how close the counter is getting to the end. Furthermore, it is a count in anticipation, not in celebration. My count celebrated each day, hoping for no end; counting the omer anticipates the end of the count. God’s mandated count was a means to an end, not a means from a beginning.
We know the end of the fifty days. It is a time of celebration of the giving of God’s Law. But there is a different counting we should be making. Every day should be counted as one day closer to our end. Whether that end is our death or “the World to Come,” we should be anticipating that event. We don’t know how high the count will go. Only God knows. Nevertheless, we must count each day not as an accomplishment (though it is), but also as one day closer to glory. We could dwell on our past, but that gains us nothing. Even the appearance of freedom is worthless until we celebrate true freedom. So we count the days until we are truly free. Because we don’t know how high the count is, we count up until our freedom.
(Shavuos/Pentecost is May 23, 2007)