Once upon a time, most of us were farmers. We grew fruits and vegetables, and we grew grain — barley and wheat, in their respective seasons. Our ability to eat depended upon the whims of the weather and various pests.
Today, flour comes from the store, or maybe the farmer’s market if we’re fancy. Or, in the time of COVID-19, maybe from nowhere, because lots of places are sold out.
It’s hard to imagine what our ancestors would think of us, freaking out over how to collect wild yeast, in this age when many of their agricultural traditions are forgotten. For example, several thousand years ago, when the Israelites arrived at that famed land of milk and honey, farmers marked the second day of Passover by bringing the first omer — sheaf — of their barley harvest to the priests (we didn’t have rabbis back then). This offering was an acknowledgement that much exists beyond our understanding and control, and that we must exhibit gratitude for what we have. Around the same day that they began their barley harvest, their wheat — still green — would begin to ripen on the stalk. And then, nervously, they would wait.
It was a vulnerable season for the farmers. They might have set their wheat up for harvest success, but they couldn’t control the rain. My next door neighbor, Sarah Chandler, happens to be a Jewish farm educator and Kohenet (a Jewish priestess. Totally a thing. Goddess bless 2020). I asked her, from a safe distance of eight feet of course, what she knew about these ancestor farmers of ours. She told me that farmers wanted the wheat to ripen in the field, but if there was too much rain, it would mold before it could be harvested. An entire year’s supply of grain — gone. So the farmers would count the days from barley to wheat harvest, 49 of them to be exact, marking each day closer to that sigh of relief of knowing that the crop was a success.
This year? I find myself jealous that they knew how many days they needed to count. I mean, seriously, if I knew that at day 50 of this quarantined mess everything would be safe again, what a relief that would be. Instead, I’m counting days — like all of us — without a set end date, waiting and waiting for safety and peace to return. Which brings me back to the omer.
Even though we’ve long since lost the practice of bringing our offering of grain to the priests (who no longer exist) at the Temple (that we no longer have), we have inherited our agricultural ancestors’ practice of counting. Beginning on the second night of Passover and concluding on Shavuot, the harvest festival that celebrates the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai, Jews the world over pause every night to count a day.
There’s a quick blessing for counting the Omer, and then you say the number of days and, after day seven, the number of days and weeks. Since this seems odd without any actual grain, many Jews add relevancy by including psalms or connections to the Kabbalistic idea of sefirot (different manifestations of the divine mapped onto a human body. Pretty trippy. Check it out!). But the idea is just to keep track of time when the future is fragile.
Speaking of fragility, let’s remember that those of us privileged enough to have felt safe before the virus are extremely lucky, and that for many this time is a continuation and amplification of constant insecurity. I hope that when this ends, if this ends, we’ll continue our lives with an understanding of just how much we can and should share with our neighbor. Our wheat may be planted in separate fields, but the rain that impacts one impacts the one next to it as well.
So, this year, I think that counting the Omer is a practice more of us should take on. Here are three quick reasons why:
1. It connects us to our shared sacred myth (or fact. Or both).
Right now, it’s tough to stay grounded and calm. We are hardly the first people in our story to experience deep uncertainty. In counting the Omer, we tap into an ancestral practice of slowing down, looking at where we are, and making note of it with hope for the future.
2. It’s an accessible, adaptable practice.
Don’t speak Hebrew? Say the blessing and count in English. Worried you’ll forget to count or what day you’re on? There’s an app for that. Want to add extra learning for each day? Go wild (here’s a great set of meditations to get started with at Ritualwell).
3. It’s a way to build community (with me, if you like!) and engage in gratitude while we socially distance!
Every day of the Omer, I’ll do an Instagram post of something in my apartment (or, occasionally, if I dare, from a walk outside) that I want to note and offer thanks for. It could be a meal I make or a page of a book I’m enjoying. It could be a video of birdsong or another random sonic interlude of Brooklyn. It could be will definitely be (at some point) a picture of my cat being cute. I’m using the hashtag #OmerInPlace and would love for you to join me with your own photos for all 49 days (or as often as you’d like). Tag me @em.cohen.
This year, the Omer begins on the night of April 9 and concludes on May 28. Social distancing guidelines are staying in place at least until the end of April, and even if things begin to loosen up in May (an optimistic prospect), we won’t be back to normal in the coming seven weeks. Our ancestors, literal or mythic or both, knew what it was to be afraid of circumstances beyond their control, and they knew how to ground themselves in the simplicity of a daily count. So, listen to your elders. Count with me this year. If we’re lucky, we’ll make it to the harvest together more grounded and grateful. And, no matter what, we’ll be in community along the way.
Header Image via Tatomm/iStock/Getty Images