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
I am one of four, the third of four to be exact. Being one of four is part of the way I see myself in the world, a central component of my identity and the way I have come to understand people and relationships. My mother is the oldest of three. Her place as the firstborn sibling to a younger brother and sister has shaped her sense of responsibility and the ways in which she derives satisfaction and meaning in the world.
A few weeks ago, my mother lost her younger sister. My aunt Debbie was much more than that to us all. As one of my sons phrased it, she was his grandmother-once-removed. Despite the loss, my mother will always be one of three.
The shiva period afforded siblings and cousins the opportunity to reunite in appreciating the many blessings that come along with being part of a big family. In one particular conversation, my first cousin-once-removed (that’s my mother’s cousin) shared with me that, despite losing a younger sister decades ago, she describes herself to this day as one of four when asked about her family.
As the narrative of Joseph and his brothers builds towards its climax, Jacob, facing a famine with no end in sight, sends his ten older sons to Egypt for food. Joseph, the vizier in charge of dispensing rations, recognizes his brothers and decides to test them, accusing them of being spies. They respond in one voice: “We your servants are twelve brothers, sons of one man in Canaan; the youngest is with our father, and the one is not” (Genesis 42:13). Leaving aside the fact that the brothers exclude their sister Dinah (a topic for another blog), the brothers see themselves as twelve; it is their identity, even though their brother Joseph has been absent for years and they have passed him off as dead.
In speaking with people who have lost a child, I have learned that parents will often shape answers to questions about their families based on what is most comfortable for them in the moment, on who is asking, and on whether they feel like engaging about their loss. No matter the public response in the moment, these parents count their deceased children as part of the family, still shaping the identity of the family unit.
Such is the nature of memory in the Jewish tradition. In times both happy and sad, we strive to keep the souls of our departed loved ones as a presence in our lives—shaping our identities, defining our priorities, inspiring gratitude for the gifts we possess that can never be taken away.
May our memories of our loved ones be for a blessing to us,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The Talmud teaches that those who don’t mourn ancient Jerusalem’s destruction will not merit rejoicing with her at her redemption. I have always understood this statement to mean that we can only truly appreciate the greatest joys in our lives if we have truly engaged with the sorrows in our lives. As the two extremes seemingly travel together within us, our saddest moments are buoyed by the knowledge that we have known—and will know again—pure joy. Similarly, our happiest moments are tinged with the knowledge that such joy can’t last forever, and that we will no doubt come to know sadness again.
One of the ancient rituals of the holiday of Sukkot is the celebration of water drawing and libations that took place in the time of the Holy Temple. The Talmud describes this ceremony as the epitome of joy, as water would be drawn from a well and poured over the sacrificial altar. As the rains fall today, on this third day of the holiday, we have the luxury of moving indoors; but our prayers for rain at this time despite wanting to be outside in the sukkah underline this sense of anxiety with which we live. We don’t control the weather—no matter what Rabbi Drill tells you about her powers—and we are dependent on a force beyond our control to bring just enough rain to be a blessing, a source of sustenance and joy. The same source of that joy, however, can also be a source of destruction and sadness. When it is time to draw from the well, there is no guarantee the well will be filled. We want to find the well filled when we need it, but not at the expense of the joy that is meant to accompany this holiday.
I liken this well to a well that exists within each of us. That well holds all our love. It is filled by how much love we give, and by how much we allow ourselves to be loved. In our times of greatest celebration, that love is easily drawn and poured out atop our offerings of joy. And in times of our greatest sadness, that love is similarly drawn up from the well, to be poured atop our altar of tears. Only those of us who have drawn from the well in sadness can truly understand what it means to draw from the well in joy. And only those of us who have known such complete joy as to cry in happiness can fully appreciate the profound nature of our loss.
To paraphrase a line from the movie Parenthood (the original with Steve Martin, not the TV series), we must choose whether we want our lives to run like a rollercoaster, with all its exhilarating highs and frightening lows, or like a merry-go-round, never really getting anywhere. Jewish living invites us to ride the rollercoaster–to be exhilarated and frightened, joyful and sorrowful, in the same breath.
May we be comforted in knowing that the feeling in the pit of our stomach is simply a wellspring of love.
In gratitude for your friendship,
Rabbi Craig Scheff