This Jewish Ritual Changed My Life When I Needed It Most

I trained for a 330 mile bike ride as I counted the Omer between Passover and Shavuot, and it got me back in the saddle of life.

The very first time I participated in counting the Omer was the spring of 2020. I was working for a Jewish nonprofit and navigating the terrifyingly uncertain, unprecedented early days of the pandemic. In this virtual reality, a Jewish educator held a Zoom class on preparing for Passover during which she explained that the Torah commands us to count the days between the second night of Passover and Shavuot, which is when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. I’d heard about counting the Omer in the past, but had never followed through. This year was different, though.

I was tuning into this Zoom from my childhood home in suburban Maryland, having fled my apartment in New York City at the very beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. It had been weeks since I’d hugged or touched anyone. Immediately after going to the grocery store, I’d strip down and throw my clothes directly into the washing machine, terrified of catching COVID-19. I dared not take my bicycle out of the garage, gripped with fear that a ride on one of my favorite trails wouldn’t ensure sufficient social distancing. Perhaps doing this mitzvah of counting the Omer might be good for my soul, I thought. I tried to be positive, thinking the practice might help me gain a sense of time and ritual — though I really wondered if it would actually just remind me of how many days it had been since I had embraced another human and felt some semblance of a normal life.

I counted the Omer each evening that spring, and after counting, I walked outside for at least a moment to breathe in the spring nighttime sky and notice. Notice the temperature, feel the pollen and hear the sounds of the birds. Then I’d go inside and fall asleep, proud to have remembered to fulfill this mitzvah. Underneath the calm of this ritual, I deeply yearned to be held and reassured that it would all be okay.

I did not count the Omer again for another two years. Time was both speeding up and slowing down as vaccines began to roll out, and in 2021 and 2022, I simply forgot to count the very first night of the Omer on the second night of Passover. I didn’t pay much attention to the passing days thereafter, either.

But last year, in 2023, something different happened. I was taking a walk in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., where I permanently relocated after getting stuck in the area in 2020, and as I walked the trails of the park, signs of spring emerging, my inner voice piped up. When I’m able to pause from the go-go-go, I can hear her wise, soulful counsel accompanied by a warm buzz in my third eye and in my heart, which I’ve come to trust even when seemingly inconvenient or surprising. And what she said was totally bonkers: I was going to lead a retreat and group bike ride from D.C. to Pittsburgh along the C&O Canal and Great Allegheny Passage. I had previously joked with a friend of mine who lives in D.C. that we should bike from here to there, but the possibility of actually doing it had never occurred to me… until that moment.

It wasn’t a fleeting thought. Step by step, the buzz of excitement was building inside of me. I was yearning to get outside and back in the saddle of life.

I realized that if I was actually going to lead this group trek, first, I needed to go do it myself. As someone who had never fixed a flat tire or biked more than 25 miles in a day and could not have told you that a pannier is the fancy term for a bike bag, saying yes to biking more than 330 miles in the course of a few days was both a thrilling and unbelievable idea. But I didn’t let that stop me.

I started making concrete plans. Memorial Day weekend seemed like an apt time to depart. It was about two months away, so I’d have time to train, but I’d be able to complete the ride before the heat started. Checking my calendar, I discovered: I didn’t have work on the Friday leading into Memorial Day because it was… Shavuot. I was thrilled! I may have even chortled. I could get more time in on this ride without taking more time off. Weee!

And then it hit me. I’d be hitting the road on Shavuot. Since Passover was about to begin, my training would coincide directly with counting the Omer. Each of those 49 days would center the training, learning and preparing I needed to tackle my goal. Serendipitously, I had just purchased a Counting the Omer workbook. Everything was falling into place.

I began to train and count the Omer. Most days, I read the inspiring message in the workbook that infused one or two of seven different spiritual qualities. I’d say the blessing to count the day. Some days, I’d open the workbook and write or reflect on the prompt. And each day, I trained and planned.

As I entered days 40, 41, 42… and I managed to bike another mile, map out another leg of my itinerary… I could feel the finish line of counting the Omer moving towards the starting line of my 330 mile bike journey.

I wasn’t just moving forward with a Jewish ritual and planning for a life goal — I was moving forward with my life. The first time I counted the Omer, back in 2020, most of my reflections to myself and to my therapist were about how alone I felt, fearful of the world. Now, as I sped toward this Omer finish line and my bike ride starting line, I shook off the lingering feelings of isolation. I was reconnecting with friends and family and discovering how to call in support. I asked friends to share bike ribbons to put on my handlebars and suddenly fabrics of all flavors were arriving in my mailbox. My massage therapist held me accountable to my workouts, including strength training sessions. At work, I resisted striving for perfection and overextending myself because I had to make time for my training goals. And after much deliberation on what type of panniers to buy, my cousin lent me hers!

As I counted the days and made the days count, getting physically and mentally prepared to make this several hundred miles possible, I went from biking 10 miles to riding 30 or 40 and then 65 with ease. It wasn’t tour de France speed, but who was counting that? Not me. What I was counting was the momentum I was gaining in and out of the bike saddle.

Courtesy of Ellen Oshinsky

My cousin and my uncle joined me on Shavuot for Day 1 of my 7 day ride to Pittsburgh. We headed down to Georgetown in the morning to greet the Mile 0 Marker of the C&O and begin the trail. Canada Geese were waddling about as we crossed over a footbridge behind a boat house, and they flew off as we approached. We took a selfie and then we began to pick wild mulberries that shaded the starting point. I was completing a journey, one of listening to my intuition and counting the steps of life, as I rolled on to the start of the next journey and path ahead. I had left the narrow constraints of my early pandemic life. I listened to my internal revelation and it helped me start my journey toward something better.

I was ready to roll, one day at a time.

Ellen Oshinsky

Ellen Oshinsky (she/her) is a fundraiser and retreat leader based in Washington, D.C. You can learn about the upcoming retreats and rides that she is leading through Circle and Spoke’s website, Instagram and newsletter.

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