Guest Column: Count Me In

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer In the midst of Covid, counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot takes on added meaning.

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Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer was a much-valued Jewish Week colleague as author of The New Normal blog, dealing with disability issues. She blogs about spirituality, parenting and Judaism at https://gabriellekaplanmayer.medium.com

The 33rd day of the Omer, Lag B’Omer, is a day of respite from the plague that took the lives of thousands of Rabbi Akiva in ancient times. It is celebrated in Israel and other places with bonfires.

The counting of the Omer is not a Jewish ritual that my family participated in while I was growing up. It wasn’t something that I heard about until a decade ago when my friend and teacher, Rabbi Yael Levy, introduced me to the 49-day ancient counting practice between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot as a way to pay attention to inner and outer time.

Counting this year, 13 months into the pandemic, feels like it’s taken on additional significance. The falling away of so many of the external markers of time that we depended on in pre-pandemic life has made these days feel like a surreal mix of repetition and timelessness.

I’m finding that the simple act of pausing each evening to recite a blessing and say the number of the day in Hebrew, out loud, forces me to distinguish one day from the next in a new, enlivening way.

For our ancestors living in Biblical times, the counting of the Omer took place as they awaited the barley harvest. It wasn’t an abstract practice but an earthly one. It meant counting to contain all their anticipation about what the year’s barley harvest would yield--and all that the harvest would mean for the community: eating or going hungry, abundance or famine. Life or death.

Over the last year, we’ve counted things that we never could have imagined before: the days since an exposure to someone with Covid; the weeks since leaving our office desks full of to-do lists and sticky notes; the months of not being able to see our loved ones.

While we’ve experienced these collective shifts, each of us has our own unique list of what we’ve been counting, our own containers for grief and longings, mixed in with the search for patience and hope.

Each night as I count the Omer, I am beginning to process some of the ways I’ve been unconsciously counting:

· The months that I wasn’t able to visit my teenage son, who lives in a residential treatment center for young people with complex therapeutic needs;

· First the days, then weeks and now months since my mother passed away, not from Covid but unexpectedly, a loss made more difficult by not being able to comfort with hugs;

· The year now that my daughter hasn’t been able to visit her other grandmother, who lives in a nursing home for people living with Alzheimer’s.

And yet for all of the challenges that this year has brought for me personally, it’s also been a year of wonderful surprises. More than ever in my life, I have learned to release expectations and entitlements about how life should be. In my counting of the Omer this year, waves of gratitude open up and I can count the unexpected:

· All of the lunches that I got to share with my daughter while she’s been home for school (granted, she was scrolling on her phone for many of them);

· The number of staff who have made sure that my son has been healthy and safe every single day and who helped connect us to connect on Zoom calls where I got to see him smile, even when we couldn’t yet do in-person visits;

· The extra-long afternoon walks that I got to take with my dogs;

· The bounty of different colored chrysanthemum plants left on my porch by an anonymous friend when I returned from the eight hours of traveling to and from my mom’s small outdoor family funeral.

I could go on and on with that list and, hopefully, through the rest of my Omer counting practice and beyond, I will experience a deep accounting of blessings and losses.

For now, this daily practice of counting the Omer feels like a gift from my ancestors, connecting me to them, and to the awareness that rituals have helped ground us human beings through the uncertainty of being alive, in past times and in this present moment.