We are always counting something. We count up to intensify excitement. We count down as a way to quicken the relief when we desperately wish something would end already, like a prison sentence or the school year. In most instances, counting precipitates both joy and anxiety. Even when we want something to happen, we also harbor insecurities about its arrival. Will it offer us the break, the transformation, the delight we expect? Will it disappoint?
It’s hard to put our annual Jewish count — the Omer — into this framing. At our house, you get rewarded for a full count with a cheesecake, but we’d probably give you a slice even if you forgot. We count 49 days from Passover to Shavuot ritualistically with the onset of the new Jewish day the evening before. It’s not always easy to remember this count on busy spring nights that fly out of routine. A relative joked that the best way to remember is to put an Omer brick under your pillow. Each night when you go to bed and put your head down, you get a quick reminder. You might also get a concussion. I’ll take my reminder in the form of a nightly text, thank you.
If counting up or down is something we do quite naturally, why is it so hard to remember the Omer? Every year, a friend seems to forget about day two. We count when there is anticipation. It’s not clear that as a community we are really anticipating Shavuot and what it stands for: a celebration of the Torah’s significance in our lives. Sen. Joseph Lieberman concurs in his new book on the season, “With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai.” He believes that although Passover is the most widely practiced Jewish holiday, Shavuot is the least (there may some competition with Shmini Atzeret, Sen. Lieberman; try explaining that in the office). “I believe that Shavuot is the most under-appreciated holiday on the Jewish calendar,” he writes. Me, too.
On the one hand, Shavuot should be a draw. It’s a lot shorter than Sukkot and involves no building. It’s a lot shorter than Passover and requires no cleaning. It involves less oil and fewer potatoes than Chanukah and is less somber than the High Holy Days. It’s a great holiday for vegetarians (but not great if you’re lactose intolerant). It’s a special time if study is foundational to your spiritual life.
It’s also a wonderful time to honor teachers and the role that learning plays in shaping the Jewish psyche while marking the spiritual and intellectual achievement that gave us a reason for our freedom. Lieberman makes this important connection for us as we move from Passover to Mount Sinai: “It represents the ideals and goals we have for ourselves and our country, much as the commandments and values of God-given Law have done for thousands of years.” He reminds us that “Without law, freedom cannot guarantee a secure or good life.”
With all this going for it, why is Shavuot often treated like the stepchild of Passover instead of its culminating, theological embrace? Perhaps this has to do with the fact that there is no central ritual and iconic symbol of Shavuot, the way there is on the other major Jewish holidays. It is hard to hold onto and mark time without an abiding physical image or task. Some will say that staying up all night — tikkun leil — is the ritual, but this was a much later historical development and nowhere present in the Hebrew Bible.
I pondered this question annually until I read the essay “Loving the Torah More than God” in Emmanuel Levinas’ “Difficult Freedom.” He explains that the encounter at Sinai was not an intimate communion with God, but a penetrating and frightening encounter with the laws God gave us: “[T]he link between God and man is not an emotional communion that takes place within the love of a God incarnate, but a spiritual or intellectual relationship which takes place though an education in Torah.”
Legal foundations aren’t warm and fuzzy, but you cannot have a community of meaning without them. Levinas continues: “Spirituality is offered us not through a tangible substance, but through absence. God is real and concrete not through incarnation but through Law, and His greatness is not inspired by His sacred mystery. His greatness does not provoke fear and trembling but fills us with high thoughts.” Sinai highlighted law and not God to demand more of our humanity than reverence alone.
Perhaps Shavuot has not won the holiday popularity context because it makes hard, cerebral demands of us. It doesn’t mark a miracle as much as require that we make our own miracles, building sacred communities based on a set of shared values.