Counting the Days

Shabbat Shalom! 

לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָה׃

Teach us to number our days truly, so that we may develop a heart of wisdom.

The confluence of our doubled parsha today, Tazria-Metzora, and this liminal stretch between Pesach and Shavuot, has me thinking a lot about counting days. As you know we are in the period of Omer counting. As of the night of the second seder, those who take on this practice have been observing the mitzvah to count, forty-nine days, seven weeks of days, in anticipation of Shavuot. Bless and count, bless and count, bless and count. Meanwhile, in the parsha this week, we learn of all sorts of occasions for counting days: days of seclusion following childbirth, days of isolation following illness, days of vigil following the discovery of mold or other damage to one’s home.

What does all this counting mean, and are there connections between the days we count in Tazria-Metzora, and the days we count in the Omer? 

What are we doing when we count the days?

To me, noting each day as it passes is a way of holding steady in a sense of purpose. It helps us to see ourselves as part of a larger pattern. Counting the Omer and knowing that Jews all over the world are engaged in the same ritual—that in each of our individual houses, we are saying the same words each night—gives us a sense of scope and connection. We are less alone—even in our individual houses—because Jews in our neighborhoods and around the world are on the same wavelength. Counting gives us a felt sense of a larger project; in counting we feel more like we count.

There is also a quality of attention that counting lends us. Back in my undergraduate days, I took an acting class with a wonderful, eccentric, charismatic teacher, Professor Schweibert. One day, Professor Schweibert called for a few brave volunteers and had us stand at the front of the room, facing the rest of the class. It was incredibly awkward! After a minute that felt more like an hour or two, he put us out of our misery and broke the silence. He huddled us “few brave volunteers” and told us a secret and then—again!—positioned us in front of the class. Totally different experience! 

What was the secret? He told us to count the chairs. Suddenly we were purposeful and calm, and had no difficulty standing in front of our classmates in silence. The chatter in our minds that had made us so uncomfortable in the previous iteration settled, and we could just be. The teaching my professor shared on that unforgettable day was that when you have something to do to focus your energy, it connects you. Counting the chairs was a simple task; in fact, counting out loud is one of the first things a toddler learns to do. Yet the act of counting evoked a profound sense of steadiness whose lesson has stayed with me through many years.

Whether counting chairs or counting days, the practice brings serenity, resoluteness and stability. Almost like a long-form meditation that plays out over a larger span of time, counting the Omer or counting days in response to divine commandment fills us up and generates its own meaning. There is great spiritual potential here, something even more than the steadiness and rootedness of counting. 

We return to the verse from Psalm 90.

לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָה׃

Teach us to number our days truly, so that we may develop a heart of wisdom.

What is this heart of wisdom? What is the wisdom that comes into our hearts through having a clear-eyed perception of the numbered-ness of our days?

In numbering our days truly, we cannot help noticing that we don’t know how many of them we get. Our sense of mortality, of the preciousness and fragility of life becomes more attuned. This, of course, is a lesson that most of us have a complicated relationship with: we want to embrace the importance of our days, to pull the marrow out of each and every experience, and yet we constantly get distracted from what matters most in a thousand different ways, and shy away from the awareness of our own mortality. Truly counting our days can be terrifying; when we allow ourselves to think what it all means, we also get a glimpse of what it could mean to lose it. And yet, if we don’t slow down and pay attention to our lives, if we don’t count the days and treasure each one, what is the point of life? There is existential dread either way, so we might as well embrace life in its entirety!

The reward is even deeper than that, and in articulating it, we can see a subtle connection between the parsha and the Omer. In Parshat Tazria-Metzora, all that counting is in the service of ritual purity. When a woman gives birth she counts off a certain number of days before she can return to full participation in the world of the Temple service. When finally she reaches readiness, she brings an offering to the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, and is welcomed back into communal life. Likewise, when a person is afflicted with one of the many skin diseases described in the parsha, they are obliged to enter into quarantine until the tzara’at has cleared. At that point, they, too, are welcomed into full participation in the central institution of the time: the Temple rite. And so it goes for the various cases of counting. Those transitional periods represent times of disconnection; the counting holds the counter steady until they can return to community.

Likewise, when we count the Omer, we count our way toward Sinai, toward the revelation of Torah recounted (!) in Parshat Yitro. Exactly fifty days after Pesach begins, we find ourselves at the foot of the mountain, assembled all together to receive the wisdom that will form the backbone of our tradition in perpetuity. Counting the days through that interstitial period represents joyous anticipation as well as earnest preparation. One by one, we make ourselves into the people we need to be in order to truly receive Torah. 

And then, the moment of revelation—as we stand trembling at Sinai—becomes a deeply communal one. Twice the Israelites accept the obligation of the mitzvot. In Shmot 19, Verse 8 they say: 

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה נַעֲשֶׂה

All that God says, we will do

And then a short time later, in chapter 24, verse 7, they say: 

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּר יְהֹוָה נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע׃

All that God says, we will do and we will understand

There’s incredible faith inherent in these statements, and incredible unity. While those seven days of weeks were experienced individually, they led Bnei Yisrael to a moment of transformative communal connection. In the moment of accepting God’s gift of Torah, they spoke in a unified voice

We are told in Dvarim 29:13-14, looking back on that moment of revelation, that God makes the covenant not just with the individuals standing there on that very day, but with those who are not there yet but who will come after. 

Similar to the obligation we articulate at the seder—to see ourselves as personally being brought forth from Mitzrayim—counting the Omer in our own time links us to that experience of a shared covenant, a shared destiny.

לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָה׃

Teach us to number our days truly, so that we may develop a heart of wisdom.

Numbering our days brings us to a heart of wisdom by connecting us to ourselves, to one another, and to God. And so I close with this blessing: during the Omer and beyond, may you number your days in ways that bring you meaning, depth, and companionship, both human and divine.

Shabbat shalom!