The journey from Mitzrayaim to Merkhav YahA name for God, as in "halleluyah" – praise God. Some people prefer this name for God as a non-gendered option., from narrow straits to expansiveness, is reflected in counting the OmerFrom the second day of Passover until Shavuot, Jews count seven weeks – seven times seven days – to commemorate the period between the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. When the Temple stood, a certain measure (omer) of barley was offered on the altar each day; today, we merely count out the days., commencing the second night of PassoverPassover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc). and continuing until we reach night 49, opening to ShavuotShavuot is the holiday fifty days after Passover and commemorates when the Israelite liberation from Egypt culminates with the giving of the Torah. Traditionally, Jews study in an all-night study session, eat dairy products (one interpretation is that the Torah is like milk to us), and read both the Ten Commandments and the Book of Ruth. and the giving of TorahThe Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general..
Moving from MitzrayimLit. Egypt. Because the Hebrew word for narrow is tzar, Mitzrayim is also understood as "narrowness," as in, the narrow and confining places in life from which one emerges physically and spiritually., 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 HallelLit. “Praise” The Hallel prayers are additional prayers taken from Psalms 113-118 and are traditionally recited on the Jewish holidays of Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Chodesh, and Hanukah. 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 getA writ of divorce. Traditionally, only a man can grant his wife a get. Liberal Jews have amended this tradition, making divorce more egalitarian. 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(pl of sefirah) In Kabbalah, the 10 “attributes” – channels of Divine energy – via which God interacts with creation. 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 shloshimLit. Thirty The first thirty days after someone dies. This is an intermediate stage of mourning -- less intense than then initial week of shiva, but more intense than the remainder of the first year. It is customary not to shave or cut one's hair and not to attend social gatherings, parties, concerts etc during this time.. 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 mitzvahLit. Commandment. It is traditionally held that there are 613 mitzvot (plural) in Judaism, both postive commandments (mandating actions) and negative commandments (prohibiting actions). Mitzvah has also become colloquially assumed to mean the idea of a “good deed." 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’AvThe holiday on which the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem is commemorated through fasting and prayers.often as the othersShemini AtzeretThe holiday at the end of Sukkot, during which are recited prayers for rain. Rain figures prominently as God's blessing in the arid land of Israel.just 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!
shivaSeven-day mourning period following the funeral of a first-degree relative, during which time family members remain at home and receive visits of comfort. Other customs include abstinence from bathing and sex, covering mirrors, sitting lower than other visitors, and the lighting of a special memorial candle which burns for seven days.ill 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 LeiMinyanThe group of ten adult Jews needed to read from the Torah and to recite some of the most important communal prayers. In Orthodox communities, a quorum of ten men is traditionally required. Today, most liberal Jewish communities count all Jewish adults as part of a minyan. Rabbi Joan Sacks, Elaine Stewart, and Morissa Wiser