Counting the Days

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Among our many lovely Passover traditions are a few lesser-known rituals that allow us to keep the Passover feeling going after the eight-day festival has run its course.

Keep the Passover feeling going?!  Why would anyone want to do that?  Good riddance to picking matzah crumbs out of the couch cushions, a jillion hard boiled eggs and not being able to eat anything worthy of putting in one’s mouth.

Be that as it may, let’s just say that there is a bit of a letdown when we leave Passover behind (along with the need to think twice and thrice about every meal) and return to the ho-hum everyday.  Sure, we can once again fancy our snack cakes and have a bit of toast for breakfast, but there is still the loss of the feeling of festival, something akin to the post-Christmas/New Year blahs commonly experienced in cold, bare-treed January.  I suppose picking matzah crumbs out of the couch cushions could be compared, in a less dramatic fashion, to taking down the lights and dragging the tree out to the curb for recycling.

Unlike the two or three months of winter that follows the merriment of New Year’s Eve, the exit of Passover leaves us at the much more cheerful juncture of an imminent springtime.  Back in my New York days, this meant that my mother’s crocuses would pop their heads up between the house and the slate path, as if to remind us of the time of year despite the lingering snow.  Here in the desert, it is the time of year that we begin to flirt with 100° F and proceed to change the air conditioner filters in preparation for six months of sizzle.

But for those of us who dare a wistful look back over a shoulder at Passover, coming up on 14th Iyar (April 23 at sundown) is a day known as Pesakh sheni or “Second Passover.”  In Biblical times, this was a second chance to offer the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb for those who were unable to do so at Passover because they were away on a long journey or were ritually unclean at the time due to contact with a dead body.  Today, we simply eat a piece of matzah to mark the occasion, although some of the Hassidic sects prepare a meal similar to the Passover Seder.

The obvious theme of Pesakh sheni is “second chances.”  In the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, offering the Passover sacrifice was one of the highlights of the year.  Seeing to it that no one missed out is a symbolic reminder that “it’s never too late.”  Resolutions needn’t be limited to the new year.  Just as springtime is the season of rebirth in nature, it is our opportunity to reinvent ourselves, to make needed changes, to break out of old patterns and try something new.

A somewhat better known ritual is the counting of days between Passover and the upcoming two-day festival of Shavuot (Festival of Weeks or “Pentecost”), which falls on 6-7 Sivan (begins May 14 at sundown).  Shavuot is the festival marking the Lord’s giving of the Torah (in Hebrew, matan Torah) to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai.

The Counting of the Omer, stemming from the Biblical command of Leviticus 23:15-16, begins at the second Passover Seder (held last week on Tuesday night) and proceeds for 49 days, ending on the day before Shavuot.  The word omer is actually a measure of grain, mentioned many times in the Old Testament.

On the surface, the counting of the Omer represents a bridge between two festivals, a demonstration of our anticipation of the holiday to come (not unlike the Christian Advent).  But there is also deep symbolism in the counting or measuring of days.  At a time of year featuring natural renewal, we are reminded to count our many blessings.  Similarly, it is a time of reflection, of examining whether we “measure up” to being the kind of person we really want to be.  Pesakh Sheni, the day of second chances, falls during this period.

The Counting of the Omer reminds us that we need not be stuck in our ways; we can jar ourselves loose, we have a “second chance” to unstick ourselves from unhealthy patterns of behavior.  The giving of charity is associated with this season, not only because it is a traditional sign of repentance, but also because it is a concrete way of being less self-centered, of becoming more connected to the community, of giving of ourselves and caring for those among  us in need.

The flip side of second chances, of course, is the awareness that such opportunities are not unlimited.  Just as we count the days of the Omer, our own days are “counted” and “numbered.”  In other words, there is no time like the present.

As for me, I am counting the days until my wife returns from her visit to family up north.  I have five more days to go.

Hurry home, my dear.


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