Saturday, May 23, 2009

When Numbers Count

"Its only a number".... as I move on in years I appreciate when people say that about age. And yet that implies that numbers, in themselves, are not quite real.

Yet we are living in a season where numbers are very real and indeed consequential. The book of the Torah we began last Shabbat is titled by our sages Chomesh Hapekudim, The Book of Numbers. After reading the opening Parsha we would have little question as to why. At the close of this week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, a Yom Tov that does not arrive on the bases of a date on the calendar, but rather after the counting of the 49 days of the Omer.

We may debate how much numbers matter, but the act of numbering surely does.

It should not really surprise us. After all anyone who has worked on a personal issue can surely resonate with the importance of numbering. When we are trying to lose weight who has not counted the days they have been faithful to their diet, not to mention counting the pounds or kilos lost. If one goes to a meeting of those who have struggled with an addiction one hears with pride the recovering alcoholic, gambler or over-eater claim his/her days months and years in recovery. Counting is an important ingredient to succesfully making transitions to new behaviors. In counting we give measure to our success and use the measured sucess to propel us further in becoming who we need to become and doing what we need to do.

It is intriguing to note that in the counting to the chag of Shavuot we do not count down from 49 to 1 as we might imagine, since we are counting to the goal of the holiday and the giving of the Torah. We count from the offering of the Omer. What are we actually numbering?

The answer is that we, like those in recovery and those trying to lose weight, are counting our faithfulness to a new way of life. Having left Egypt we also left a lifestyle embedded in impurity. We embraced a commitment to kedusha. As a nation we resolved to serve Hashem.

Each day after the Exodus, we renewed our resolve and deepened it so that after 49 days we were worthy of receiving the Torah and as it were, becoming betrothed to the Divine.

Its not that we are counting to Shavuot. On the contrary Shavuot happened only after we achieved a certain level of national recovery, or what we might better call national teshuva, as reflected in the days of the count. Shavuot was not the goal of the count but rather its result. When the people of Israel had become who they needed to be through both effort and time they became worthy of the Torah and the special status as the goy kadosh, the holy nation of G-d.

That is why the counting is tied to the bringing of the Omer rather than the Exodus. Counting from the Exodus would seem to be counting from that which we had escaped. While escaping the impurities of Egypt is significant, recovery is not simply about counting the days from when you last acted-out.

Rather we count from the omer offering, an offering of the earliest grains to be harvested, the barley, as a gift to G-d. We can relate to that symbolically as we the people of Israel are called raishit tevuato, the first grains of the Divine, and now we devote ourselves to His service.

We count from the bringing of the Omer because that is the symbol that best epitomizes the work for us during this period of numbering, a work that each year leads to once again renewing our covenant with Hashem and Hashem once again giving us His Torah.

Counting can be helpful to us to shore up our personal resolve. We might help ourselves to watch what we say if we counted the days that we did not speak loshon hara. We might enhance our prayers if we counted the tefilot we said with kavana. We might better sustain our resolve to do chesed if we kept a count of the acts of kindness we did each day.

In counting we both bless our accomplishments and hold ourselves accountable. We have a way to measure who we are and what we have done.
When a number stand alone indeed "it is only a number". But when it reflects a work and a resolve numbers can bring us to the foot of Mt Sinai.

What do we need to start counting to sustain our resolve to better serve Hashem and His children? That's a good question to ponder as we await the chag which depends on the count.

Chag Samayach Shabbat Shalom

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