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Counting COVID: From Omer to Omer!

The journey from Mitzrayaim to Merkhav Yah, from narrow straits to expansiveness, is reflected in counting the Omer, commencing the second night of Passover and continuing until we reach night 49, opening to Shavuot and the giving of Torah.

Moving from Mitzrayim, the narrow place—Egypt, specifically, but more broadly understood to be any place of constriction—to a place of Merkhav Yah, expansiveness, is the central experience of liberation. Beloved Hallel Psalm 118 expresses this exuberantly: min hameitzar karati Yah, anani ba’merkhav yah ־מִֽן־הַ֭מֵּצַ֥ר קָרָ֣אתִי יָּ֑הּ עָנָ֖נִי בַמֶּרְחָ֣ב יָֽהּ – From the narrow straits I called to God, and God answered me with expansiveness.

In our mid-Atlantic ecosystem, these 49 days reveal endless expansion, another spiritual dimension, as we watch plants send out leaves, buds, and blossoms. Trees flower; we go strawberry picking. The days get longer, with delicious sunlight animating our moods and our pace. Bees buzz in a symphony of abundant pollination.

This past year a group of us at Minyan Dorshei Derekh, finding ourselves in the narrow restrictions of COVID, decided to count the Omer together by Zoom each evening. This nightly ritual provided connection and companionship in a time of great shock and fear. Our original group consisted of a half dozen regulars and a few occasional visitors. We tracked the sefirot and utilized source material for nightly study.

A beloved friend of ours, Linda Kriger z”l, lapsed into a coma following major brain surgery during our count. Linda and her husband Jake cherished the song Teach Us to Treasure Each Day (based on Psalm 90:2, composed by Rabbi Yitzchak Husbands-Hankin) so much they sang it together every night. Jake asked people to sing it for Linda to pray for her healing. We did so as part of our nightly counting ritual. Sadly, Linda died. We continued singing “her” song each evening through the 30 days of shloshim. Even though we were disoriented, fearful, and isolated, its words and her memory helped remind us each day is a gift.

When our Omer Count culminated, our shared journey felt far from over. We decided to continue our nightly count. Obviously, we weren’t counting the Omer any longer. We decided that our mitzvah was the counting itself, sefirah, keeping track of endless days.

We gather on Zoom beginning at 9:00pm and spend a few minutes chatting. At 9:10pm we recite a prayer and count the days. We use the traditional prayer for counting the Omer, replacing al sefirat ha-omer with al sefirat ha-yamim, and then follow the format of Omer counting—the number of total days, the number of weeks, and any remaining days.

First, we counted to Tisha b’Avoften as the othersShemini Atzeretjust checking in was fine, with an occasional text to study. After Shemini Atzeret we decided even though our counting wouldn’t have a specific endpoint, we felt called upon to document each night by continuing our ritual counting. We often groaned and shook our heads in shared disbelief when we uttered the new number. That is part of the ritual!

Our group has learned that even in very deep Mitzrayim, that narrow place, can come surprising and paradoxical Merkhav Yah, expansion.

One of us, in the extreme quiet of sheltering in place, discovered a passion for writing poetry. Another, long homebound, marvels at how much her social, professional, and Torah study access has expanded and deepened. A “Countess,” as we call ourselves, mourned a parent’s death with loving community stretching far beyond pre-COVID’s geographic shiva boundaries.

As you read this, we will be completing an entire year of counting. We hope to end with our second Omer cycle by which time, we pray, vaccinations will be vanquishing the virus and we can once again experience communal life. How glorious that Merkhav Yah will be!

shivaill continue count #1, and add the new Omer as a separate count. Since the Hebrew and Gregorian years don’t line up, our second Omer will begin on Day 353 and conclude on day 402. What a celebration that will be, if we can meet in person and hug each other, at the safe completion of our journey together.

Read a poem, by Ann Ellen (Chana) Dickter, that was inspired by this counting practice.

Betsy Teutsch lives in Philadelphia where she is an active member of Minyan Dorshei Derekh and her local Buy Nothing Group. She recently completed writing a book on reducing global food loss and waste, titled 100 under $100: Tools for Reducing Postharvest Losses.

Sister Countesses: Ann Ellen (Chana) Dickter, Cantor Naomi Hirsch, Pesha LeiMinyan Rabbi Joan Sacks, Elaine Stewart, and Morissa Wiser

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