Counting the Omer of Illness, Loss, Gratitude and Redemption
You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your accounting will make fifty days. — Vayikra 23: 15 – 16
When it was time to count the first day of the Omer, I was not at a second night seder. I was not standing with family and friends, turning to the final pages of the Haggadah and reciting the blessing and counting for the first time this year. I did count the first day of the Omer, but I was prone on an emergency room bed, felled by an intense case of what turned out to be pancreatitis.
Ever the optimist, I expected the nurse to tell me I was being discharged. Instead, she told me that something had been detected on my pancreas and I was being admitted into the hospital. Day One of the Omer. A new reality began.
I have not missed counting each day of the Omer since. No carelessness, no jumping up out of bed half asleep because I had forgotten, no catching up the morning after to save the pattern in the nick of time. Blessing and counting became serious business for me this year because the days of the Omer have entirely encompassed this strange odyssey in my life. From Day One through Day Forty-Nine (which will be counted tonight) I have experienced unexpected illness, a shocking diagnosis, major surgery, the unexpected death of my brother, a limited ability to fulfill the mitzvah of shiva, learning protocols for chemotherapy, and rising up from shiva and shloshim with the onset of Shavuot.
Certainly, the coincidence of time cannot be ignored. Certainly, there was much for me to learn along the way as I counted diligently each night and wondered what the new day would bring.
The Omer beat out a consistent rhythm for me. Do not despair. Count each day. There are blessings present in every single moment.
I know that life is not easy. Faith is a challenging, ephemeral thing to hold. But despite my training in the world of yogic philosophy, I have never accepted that life is about suffering. Despite the many sorrowful experiences I have shared with cherished congregants, I believe that life is in the joy despite the sadness. And though we struggle with faith, God is always right there for us, just one request for help away.
To me, life is not a battle. Life is a precious gift and sometimes we are challenged by illness and loss to hold on to that primary Jewish belief. The Omer helped me remember each day that life is a gift.
Throughout this Omer period, God has felt entirely present to me. My son-in-law, Sagi, asked me a profound question. He wanted to know if I was acting strong and whole or if I was feeling strong and whole. I explained that the way I am behaving is because of how I feel – held by family, friends and community, and most of all, held by God. I am strong and whole.
I have found that God is present at all times. I broke down completely one of the first nights in the hospital. Rather than receive any positive results at all, I was instead receiving worse and worse news. I gave in to my fears and grief, lay in my bed weeping for all that I was going to miss. I railed against God, asking why I had to have cancer when I have so much to do, so many ways to serve God, and so many family obligations to fulfill. I asked God, “How can I do this without You?”
Just as I was drying my tears and collecting myself, my kind nurse Nadine came in to check on me. “Oh, my dear,” she comforted. “What is the matter and why are you so sad?” I told her about the diagnosis I had received that afternoon. She huffed a bit at my news, looked me straight in the eye and began to preach. “You are one of the Children of Abraham, you are God’s chosen child and God will not let you falter. Remember that God loves you and is with you. I know you have great faith. God has great faith in you.” I wish that I could remember all that Nadine told me that evening. She was speaking to me from another faith tradition but it was clear to me as I looked into her compassionate, beautiful face that she was my angel, delivering to me the answer from God for which I had just been praying.
As it turned out, the pancreatitis that was so painful (and inconvenient, happening on the first day of Pesach) was also my personal miracle. If I had not had such an acute case of the inflammation that sent “stubborn me” to the Emergency Room after a day of “waiting for it to pass,” the small, encapsulated tumor at the head of my pancreas would not have been found.
I will stand by my certainty that I was blessed by God with a miracle. I will not try to defend this belief theologically because it is indefensible. Why should I receive a miracle and not the patient in the next hospital bed? Why would a murderer potentially receive the same miracle as me if this were all part of God’s special gift to me? God is neither cancer nor oncology. I know. It is indefensible. Yet it is true for me. God granted me a miracle for which I am grateful.
I have learned also that the power of prayer and positive energy is a curative. I have read research, studied Jewish texts and taught about the power of prayer. Now, I have experienced it for myself. My healing has not been easy, but it has progressed faster than one might expect. The Circle of Psalms of congregants and friends has had a profound impact on me, reminding me that I am surrounded by love. Each evening at 7:30 when I read Psalm 121, I wonder who else is reciting a psalm. I am always buoyed by the thought of just how many have joined with me in that moment. When I told my surgeon, Dr. Langan that many people were praying for his wisdom and steady hands, he responded, “That means so much to me. I have been praying for you too.”
And then, in a startling confluence of time, on my first day home after surgery, we received the shocking news that my brother Dr. Eric Mack z”l had died in his home in California. I was unable to fully ingest the reality, manage any of the decisions that needed to be made, travel to Maine for the funeral or sit in a complete shiva. In case I had any final reservations about the need to protect myself and care for myself first through this period of time, losing Eric was a complete and final lesson in this regard. I had no choice. I had to choose life – my own life.
Eric’s greatest joy in his later years was sharing insights into the weekly Torah portion with his fellow congregants at his shul, Etz Hadar in Redlands, something that he and I would discuss almost every week. How appropriate that the shiva for my brother and my days of mourning as his sister come to a completion just as we rise up tomorrow evening, for the holiday of Shavuot, to receive the Torah at Sinai. This year, Revelation will feel especially sweet with one more student of Torah studying at God’s Table for the holiday.
I will never again take for granted the mitzvah of counting the days of the Omer. We count up to remind us to cherish every day. Despite the great trials of these seven weeks, I have indeed felt every day heightened by gratitude and blessing. The world has felt more beautiful, people have seemed kinder, and love has seemed to be present in every moment. I have felt truly held by God.
As we all step forward toward Revelation at Sinai, may we be ready to enter into relationship with God. May we be willing to serve God with our gifts and blessings. May our hearts be open to miracles and prayer and Torah. May we always be kind.
Chag sameach, Happy holiday,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill