Exit Ramp: How to count
Though we are a house of many afghans, I’d been toying with crocheting another one when my husband suggested we might have enough. I disagreed, but curiosity got the best of me and I decided to count them. It turns out we have 12, plenty by any standard. Still, he yielded the point. What harm could a 13th do anyway?
The truth is, he knows I enjoy the process of crocheting almost as much as I treasure the output. I find the repetition of a pattern hypnotic and mind-clearing, like a soothing mantra. Still, it doesn’t exempt me from having to count — or at least pay attention to — every stitch, especially if I want the project to look lovely enough to drape over the couch.
I was in the throes of working on the new afghan last week when my son suddenly lifted his hands from his Mac and began to count the omer. We were already in the homestretch of the 49-day omer period. I was proud of him for having stayed the course, but also a little envious since I’ve never made it past day 11. I said “Amen” to his blessing, and soon found my mind connecting all of the counting taking place in my home that night.
We Jews put a lot of stock in numbers and counting, in everything from commentaries on the Torah to our daily customs. Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value, every word a significance based on the tally. In this week’s parsha, the first in the Book of Numbers, the children of Israel count themselves. And of course, there’s the counting of the omer, the seven weeks between our exodus from Egypt on Passover and the giving of the Torah on Shavuot.
To paraphrase an expression on many a souvenir coffee mug, the omer journey counts as much as the destination. It’s a period of personal growth, a steady climb that builds our anticipation for the moment when we receive the Torah, while adjusting our spiritual mindset so we are ready to embrace its commandments. As if we’re crafting a large afghan, the process demands a lot from us — hard work, commitment, and endurance. Yet it is precisely the effort we expend to refine ourselves while counting the omer that prepares us for our encounter with God on Shavuot.
Our transformation comes in increments. It requires patience to take it one day at a time. But we are buoyed by the knowledge that we are not going it alone, like the thousands of different stitches in my afghan. Each individual stitch is only as sturdy as the ones that surround it. Only when they join together as part of the whole do they form a thing of strength and beauty.
On Shavuot, we relive the giving of the Torah as if we, too, stood not alone, but among the throngs in the desert thousands of years ago, waiting for Moses to descend from Mount Sinai with the tablets. We can experience it in this way because the Torah is a living thing, as relevant today as it was then, showing us how to be a Jew in the world in our own generation. It is the blueprint that helps us strike a balance to fill the space between Hillel’s questions in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I’m only for myself, what am I?”
The Torah contains all we need to coexist, to be a part of a larger, meaningful whole. It offers us the moral guidelines to stand on our own, but it also demonstrates how we must care for, and count on, others. It teaches us how to navigate our interpersonal relationships and how to carry ourselves in public and private spaces. And it shows us how to conquer our inclinations, to soften our hearts, and to make a difference in the time we’re given on this earth.
After all, there’s no expiration date on the Torah’s wisdom. The opportunity to bring kindness into the world is always there for the taking. But as Hillel wonders in his third question — “If not now, when?” — it’s up to us to make the answer count.