The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzovsky (1911–2000), said that the central thing of these 49 days of Counting the Omer is each day, slowly but surely, to go a little further out of Egypt. It’s not dramatic and at least day by day, the distance we cover does not seem to be substantial – but taken together, these seven weeks symbolize an extraordinary developmental leap.
In the Slonimer’s telling, the first night of Pesach is connected to what the Hasidic tradition calls, “big mind” – we are in an expanded place of consciousness and something beyond all our individual efforting and capacity dramatically enacts our initial liberation. We blink in the new light of freedom, even if it is not something we can as yet comprehend or know what to do with. We find ourselves back in “small mind” and it’s all we can do to begin walking, to begin the slow work of truly leaving Egypt.
But what does it mean to each day go a little further out of Egypt? Other sages in our tradition have likened this time to a springtime version of the soul-searching that goes on in the month of Elul, before the High Holy Days. During the days of the Omer, we ask ourselves, in effect, what are we going to do with all this freedom? As we often note, freedom in Judaism is not an end in itself, but a means – a condition by which we can then be called forth to consciously offer and respond. In the classic language, we were forced to serve Pharoah; we now choose to serve God. So we spend these 49 days exploring and discovering what this service might look like – the ways we might give the gift of this life back – and making ourselves ready for the ritualizing of this commitment at Sinai. This is the heart of the Counting of the Omer. I think it is in this spirit here at CCM that we called our recently completed program, “Out of Mitzrayim, Towards the Joy of Responsibility.”
As I write this, we are preparing the mark the seventh day of Passover, which is linked to the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. Maybe the “wind that blew back the sea” could also be seen as wind at our backs, helping carry us along into these days of counting, towards Sinai. The Slonimer concludes his teaching by writing, “And because a person has strength from the first illumination and revealing on the first night of Pesach, she then has the trace energy from this to afterwards go through the counting for 50 days to strengthen herself, to raise up step by step, every day more and more, until she comes to the holy holiday of Shavuot, the time of the gift of Torah.”
A last thought – if we make peace with only covering a little ground each day, perhaps we can trust and just enjoy the slowness and the steadiness of this time. A slow walking, a steady strengthening. May we draw down blessings in this time of counting.
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger is the spiritual leader of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, OR, and Associate Rosh Yeshiva of CCM. He is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and is a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow. Rabbi Boettiger directs the Mussar program in Ashland, and also teaches Jewish meditation on a weekly basis and leads silent retreats.