Counting the Omer: When You Think No One Is Listening

Last week Secretary of State John Kerry was taped while speaking to a meeting of the Trilateral Commission in which he was complaining about the failure to make any progress in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

During his comments, Kerry warned that Israel risks becoming “an apartheid state” if they cannot reach a two-state solution.

His remarks were widely condemned from across the political spectrum, both Democrats and Republicans, so much so that Kerry later back pedaled, saying “If I could rewind the tape, I would have chosen a different word (than “Apartheid”) to describe my beliefs…”

Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers Professional Basketball Team, was banned for life from the NBA for making deeply offensive racist remarks, which were caught on tape and released to the public last week.

Sterling’s comments were widely condemned, and the commissioner of the NBA, Adam Silver, took quick and decisive action of barring Sterling from having any contact with the league or his team.

Both of these incidents point to an interesting phenomenon in our world of You Tube.  No conversations are really private any more.  Both of these comments came from people who thought their conversations were private.  They did not know they were being taped.  This makes us think about the power of our words – and it makes us think about the way we present ourselves to others.

When we say things we know are going to be heard by others in public, we may present a public personal – one that we would like to be proud of.  But if you are really thinking something else – and saying something you thought would remain private, there is a difference between the public person, and the private person.

Which one is the real person?  The public or the private?

Another way to ask that question is, what is the true character of a person.  Someone once said, “character is what you do when no one is watching (or taping you).”

The word “character” comes from the Greek meaning to scratch, to etch, to engrave.  Character is what distinguishes us as individuals.  It is our moral and ethical makeup.  It is who we are.  It is our soul.  Integrity is when your public words and deeds are the same as your private words and deeds.  Integrity is “the quality of being complete or undivided” (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, 11th Edition).  Integrity is when our public and private character are the same.

Judaism believes that we are born with a pure soul which God places within us.  And during our lives, we etch upon it the history of our words and deeds.  We create the content of our own character.

And the good news is that Judaism helps us improve our character.  We can change for the better.  All through our tradition, there are ways to repair our character, to improve our moral principles, to refine our sense of purpose in life.

All through the Jewish year, there are opportunities to help us improve ourselves.  There is Yom Kippur of course.  But also, at this time of year “Counting of the Omer.”

This is the meaning of “Counting the Omer.” According to the Torah, (Lev. 23:15-16) we count the days between Passover and Shavuot (49 days in all).  An “Omer” refers to a sheaf of barley that was cut down and brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God in ancient days.  This was a symbol of their gratitude to God for providing sustenance to them and their families and community.

Today, we consider this period as a time to count the days as a journey of spiritual growth and development from Pesach, or festival of freedom, to Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah.

Counting the days from Pesach, when we began the journey from slavery – to Shavuot, when Torah entered our lives, symbolizes the spiritual journey from degradation toward a quest for a better world.

Counting each day as meaningful is an important way to live.  We know there is a brevity to life, so we need to make every day count, to cherish our time, to resolve to use it well – and to achieve something of lasting worth.

One of the ways our tradition teaches us to improve our character during this period of the omer is to study “Pirke Avot,” “The Ethics of the Sages.”  Written 2000 years ago, “Pirke Avot” is a collection of pithy sayings of the famous rabbis of that era, such as Hillel, Akiva, Tarfon, and Yochanan ben Zachai.  The subjects are timeless – the advice, enduing.  Pirke Avot deals with the most important issues of our lives today, how to relate to other people, how to fix broken relationships, how to become a better person.  It is Jewish ethics in the truest sense of the word.

Where can you find your own copy of Pirke Avot?  Amazon (or your favorite local bookstore), Google, the front pages of the old Blue Gates of Prayer Book.

On this Shabbat, let us consider one of the most important, and one that is especially meaningful for our congregation: (1:12) Hillel said, “Be one of Aaron’s students, loving peach and pursuing it, loving people and bringing them to the Torah.”  This is one of the verses of Jewish tradition that gives us the name for our Congregation Rodeph Shalom.

The pursuit of peace is one of the highest ethical qualities a person can possess.  But this teaching in Pirke Avot says ‘Ohev Shalom” “Love Peace” before it says “Rodeph Shalom” “Seek Peace.”  Hillel teaches us that we must first try to understand what peace is” “Shalom” = “Wholeness” “Integrity.”  Our inner and outer person must be the same – we must be at peace with ourselves before we can bring it to others.  If we are to “love our neighbor as ourself” we must know who we are, and we must realize that all people are created in God’s image.  If we accept that, we could never say the harmful words we heard on You Tube and the news this week.

As members of this great congregational family of Rodeph Shalom, let each of us pledge to follow this teaching to “Rodeph Shalom,” “to seek peace” in our own hearts, among our own families and friends, and outside these walls – to love all of God’s children.  In this way, do we have the power to change the world.

Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha-olam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with sacred actions and enjoins us to count the omer.

Hayom shloshah v’esrim yom, shehem shloshah shavuot ushnei yamim la-omer. Today is 23 days which are three weeks and 2 days of the Omer.

Wishing you a meaningful omer– Your RS Clergy