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 and me

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



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17 responses to “Counting the Omer of Illness, Loss, Gratitude and Redemption”

  1. Ruth Hess says :

    Rabbi Paula, your amazing words take my breath away! Karl and I have recited the Psalms and pray for you daily. May you heal well and return to US FEELING STRONG!

  2. Lorraine.Brown says :

    Thank you for your beautiful wlritten reflection on these past weeks. We are inspired by your courage and strength, and honesty in letting us into your emotional world of dealing with your illness and brother’s death. When reciting your favorite psalm each nite , I am uplifted and feel closer to you in heart and spirit. May the thoughts and prayers from all of us and you connection to God, always lift you up and know how much you are loved and respected.

  3. sheila says :

    Your faith and compassion serves as a role model for all of us. I am so moved by your strength of spirit, by your candor and vulnerabiity, by the way you face challenges, by the love you share with the world. When Joe and I recite your favorite psalm at 7:30, we feel close to you and know that a nurturing God is watching over you. You are a beautiful soul. We feel blessed having you in our lives.

  4. Rosanne Spadaro says :

    “Do not despair. Count each day.” Is perfection. Love this

  5. Yaacov Rone says :

    Thank you for sharing. This is what life is about. May you continue to go “may chayil l’chayil and “count your blessings” each and every day.

  6. Abbe Breiter Fineberg says :

    Rabbi Paula, I was shocked to read this and learn of your suffering. You gave us faith when my mom was sick and you were there for us even though we were not members of your congregation. The way you were there for us when our grandparents passed….you are a one of a kind and I pray with all my heart and mind that you will be well to share your gift with the world for a long time to come. When I met you, I know what kind of Rabbi I was looking for in my life…one just like you (or close). God bless you rabbi.

  7. Charlotte Abramson says :

    Exquisite! You hold us and we continue to learn from you while we wish you a complete refuah.

  8. Lydia Jay Katz says :

    I too marvel at timing so much during this time. I am doing the D’Var Torah for the next Journey Group and was having a hard time deciding what to write about. I was sitting in “our” Journey Group room and was staring at the poster the children made about “Why do I Pray?” I know why I pray these days. I pray for you. I pray for Jonathan and your children. I pray for Rabbi Scheff and the dignity with which he has stepped in and keeps us informed. I pray for OJC. And with all of this I am so grateful that you have introduced us to the power of prayer and actually to a deep appreciation of prayer. So that is what I will write about. I only hope I can do it justice. You are far more than a Rabbi to me. You are a friend, a mentor, an advisor and so much more. If God is being bombarded with prayer so be it. I know God will never be too busy for you. Love you, Meema.

  9. Annette diskin says :

    You are such an inspirational person. Praying with you these evenings has made me feel closer to the community, as well as to you, in spite of the fact that I’m physically connected only once a month. doing this community praying is such a blessing for me. thank you for graciously sharing your vulnerability. I appreciate this is not easy for you. Prayers,love and hugs,Annette

  10. Marcy Lawrence says :

    Rabbi Paula, your words are magnificent, your faith inspiring and your strength is in the stratosphere. Sending prayers and reading Psalms for you every day. (((hugs))) –

  11. sewingdiva54 says :

    Rabbi Paula, your words are magnificent, your faith inspiring and your strength is in the stratosphere. Sending prayers and reading Psalms for you every day. (((hugs))) –

  12. Marcy Lawrence says :

    sewingdiva54 says : May 18, 2018 at 4:45 pm
    Rabbi Paula, your words are magnificent, your faith inspiring and your strength is in the stratosphere. Sending prayers and reading Psalms for you every day. (((hugs)))

  13. Judith Rose says :

    Beloved Rabbi Paula,
    Tonight is the culmination of this profound “count-up” ritual. Tomorrow we will be standing at Sinai and I know your radiant heart will be nearby. Thank you for your words, and the white spaces between them.
    “Make each day a separate life.” (from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson)
    So much love to you, Judith

  14. Leora says :

    Rabbi Drill
    I was very moved by what you wrote. Refuah shlaima. Pastoral counselor in your future?

  15. Ellen Froncek says :

    You guide me in fear and sorrow and joy. You are in my thoughts and prayers as well as the nightly psalms.

  16. superwoman910 says :

    As I read your post and the lovely, heartfelt comments of our loving community. I lie here in awe of the power of Compassion, Loving Kindness and Faith. You my dearest Rav and sweetest friend are deserving of all the miracles Gd has to offer. I pray and sing Esai Einai every night while I look at your Shaina Pumin. Thank you for your gracious teaching. XO

  17. Ruth and Karl Hess says :

    Dear Rabbi Drill,
    You leave me absolutely speechless.
    Karl and I read Psalm 121 with you at 7:30.
    We can’t do it tomorrow. We are driving to Syracuse to celebrate my sister’s 95th birthday!
    You are truly a gift from G-d for all of us.
    Sending hugs and love.😍😍

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