Counting, Mourning, New Purpose
Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5780
April 24, 2020

Shabbat shalom.

This is a season for counting,
For mourning,
And for
anticipating new purpose.

In Jewish time,
this is the period of the counting of the omer
in which we number the days
between Passover and Shavuot,
between our festival of freedom
and our festival of binding ourselves
to God at Mount Sinai
when we received the Torah.

We count 50 days in all;
when the sun goes down tonight,
we will begin day 16 of the counting.

It’s not just Jews who count things, of course;
for Muslims,
today was day one of Ramadan;

And so
to our Muslim friends, we say,
Ramadan Mubarak—
may your fasting and reflection—
Even in lockdown—
be for blessing.

I know that I’ve been counting things quite a bit.

Professionally,
I know that today is day 42
since we moved the synagogue on line.

I admit
that I sometimes count
how many people have been participating
in services and classes and hangouts on ZOOM,
And I am thrilled the say that
the numbers are off the charts.

We are a blessed congregation indeed
Finding meaning, purpose and connection
Even in these times
Especially in these times.

And personally, I’ve been counting, too.

I’ve been counting the meals I’ve cooked—
a lot more than I usually have a chance to.

I’ve been counting the number of
loaves of bread I’ve made—
6 shabbatot worth of challah,
plus 2 loaves of sourdough bread
since a friend gave me some of her starter.

I’ve been counting
my daily steps on my Apple watch—
let’s leave it at:
It’s many fewer than I’d like it to be.

I’ve been counting episodes
Of Brooklyn 99
And Unorthodox
and
The Last Dance.

I’ve been counting my gratitude
For our essential workers
Blowing the shofar on my balcony
Each night at 7 p.m.

I counted the time zones
across which we had a family seder—
4 time zones in all.

I rarely have 6 hours to play a game
Now,
I sometimes do.
So our kids taught us to play
Settlers of Catan.

And I’ve been counting the blessings
of having my family together
more than at any time in many years.

And the blessings of having a roof
Over my head
Now more than ever before

And the luxury I have
To stay home

And the blessing I have
To continue to be working
In a job I love

And the many many many
Privileges I have
In so many ways.

What are you counting these days?

Rolls of toilet paper? Paper towels?

Packets of yeast?

Zoom meetings you’ve been a part of?

Numbers of Shel Silverstein poems
You’ve read to your kids or grandkids?

In our Jewish spiritual cycle,
this is an anxious time.
Having survived
The narrow places of Egypt

Having crossed
The Reed Sea

We now
eagerly count the days
To the anniversary
of our spiritual marriage
to the Holy One of Blessing
On Mount Sinai

In the agricultural cycle, too
This is an anxious time.

This period of time, these 50 days
For farmers
And for all of us
Who depend on
How much our farmers grow

Will determine
Whether we have
An abundance of food,
Or a scarcity.

Will there be
Enough rain
Or too much?

Will there be enough sun?
Or too much?

Did we prepare the soil sufficiently?

Did we store enough grain
In case of a poorer harvest?

So I ask you again:
What are you counting?

And what
And how,
Like a farmer in an anxious season,
are you growing during this time?

Are you reading a book
You’ve always meant to read?

Are you watching a movie
You’ve never gotten around to?

Are you spending time
Reconnecting with friends
You haven’t connected with
In such a long time?

Are you learning something?
Juggling
Banjo
Shofar
Baking
Knitting
Online mahjong
French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese?

Or are you simply counting your breaths
More grateful than ever
for each
And every one?

In this time of counting the omer
What are you counting?
How does your garden grow?

This is a time for counting, mourning, and anticipating new purpose.

The period of counting the omer
is traditionally
a time of semi-mourning,
during which Jewish Law forbids
haircuts,
shaving,
or conducting weddings,
parties,
and dinners with dancing.

Traditionally,
the reason cited
is that this is in memory
of a plague that killed
the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva
In the second century CE

According to the Talmud,
12,000 pairs of Torah study partners
were killed
In a plague
During this time.

Lag BaOmer,
the thirty-third day
of the counting of the Omer,
is considered to be the day
in which the plague was lifted,
so on that day each year,
all the rules of mourning are lifted.

I know that I relate now
To this legend of a plague
More than I ever have in my lifetime.

I know that I’ve been mourning a lot of things.

Most urgently
I’ve been mourning
The deaths of friends
Some closer
Some more distant.

I’ve been mourning
The ways we have to mourn
These days

Not together like we usually do
Not with hugs
Like we usually do
Not with funerals and shivas
In the same ways we always do

But with masks and gloves
And with 10 people or less
And by ZOOM.

And personally
I’ve been mourning
plans we had

A college graduation
surprise party
And college tours
And vacations
And a beard
That didn’t go well
With a mask

I had this weird moment
In the elevator yesterday

I looked in the mirror there
And in less than a second I thought:

Who is that guy?
I recognize him.
But something has changed?
What is it?
He shaved his beard
But that’s not it.
Oh, wait— that’s me.
And I forgot my mask.

I’m starting to forget—
Starting to mourn
What it was like to go out
Without a mask on.

There so many little things
That I’d taken for granted
That I am mourning
the temporary loss of
In this “New Now.”

Like my commute

And the power
Of seeing other people
Face to face
Soul to soul
With nothing but air between us

Complete with body language
And devoid of ZOOM backgrounds.

What are you mourning?

Have you lost loved ones or friends
To this scourge?

Have you been sick?

Do you feel lonely
Whether or not
You are technically alone?

Have you been furloughed
Or laid off?

Has your salary been reduced
Or cut altogether?

What have you missed?
What are you mourning?

Your routines
The plans you had

Your friends

Touching someone
Who is touching someone
Who is touching someone
Who is touching the challah

Weddings
Bnei mitzvah
in the way your family had planned

Hugging your
Child
Your parent
Who lives blocks
Or states away

Hugging your
Brand new grandchild
Who lives blocks
Or states away

Are you mourning
Working out?
Broadway shows?
The Met?

Starbucks or
Dunkin Donuts just the way
they know you like it

Or the local coffee shop
Where everybody knows your name

Your favorite restaurant

Saying hi to the doormen
On your daily round?

What are you mourning?

My friends,
this is a time for counting,
for mourning,
and for anticipating new purpose.

At the end of
The counting of the omer
We stood at Sinai

All the waiting
And the anxiety
And the hardships
We’d endured
Meant that
We could stand
free
together
as one
at that holy mountain!

So powerful
So awe-inspiring was the moment
That the Torah says
We could see the thunder.

And in that moment,
we heard God’s call.

Tradition says
All of us were there.

Do you remember
The feeling
Of standing
With your people
And with God
As we received revelation?

Farmers know
That around the time of
The end of
The counting of the omer

The grain is ready to be harvested
The wheat separated from the chaff
And milled into flour

All the waiting
And the anxiety
And the hardships
They endured
Mean that
they
and we
all can enjoy a great bounty

Perhaps,
Just perhaps,
we appreciate it more
For having gone through
The narrow places
The drought
And the flood
And the Sea
And the hot sun
And the loneliness
And the depravation

So what is the revelation in this moment?
What is our harvest, our take away
from this unprecedented time?

What is the bounty of this moment
Despite the hardships
Despite the mourning
Despite the uncertainty?

What new purpose
will you derive from this time?

What new purpose will
Our city
Our nation
Our world
glean
from this period of time?

Perhaps it is too soon to say.

But I can’t help myself.
I know what I hope will emerge:

That we will appreciate
our essential workers
when this is all behind us
and give them a parade
In the Canyon of Heroes

And then
that we will appreciate them
after that
Even when the ticker tape
Has been swept up

I anticipate
a new sense of purpose, my friends.

A deeper sense
that we are all interconnected

A deeper sense
of the fragility of this world

A deeper sense
of our obligation,

(Stated first in the
Book of Genesis

But then perhaps forgotten
the moment we were expelled
from the Garden)

To tend this earth
To care for it
As if it were the only one we had.

I pray that
In a time of new purpose

We will see our own privilege

That we will appreciate
Both how hard this moment was
For our community
And commit ourselves
to looking out for our own
Even more intentionally

And, too, that we will appreciate
How hard it was,
One might say much harder
for so many of our
black and brown neighbors

I pray that
From this moment
We will commit ourselves
Ever more
To loving our neighbors
Like we love ourselves

I anticipate a new sense of purpose
As we resolve to
Ensure high quality
medical care for all

And ensure high quality
mental health care for all

And reproductive justice for all
And food justice for all
And immigration justice for all
And criminal justice reform for all

I see us resolving
to reduce gun violence
After the spike we’ve seen recently
in gun purchases

As we resolve to count every person
Living in our nation
In the 2020 census

As we resolve to do civic engagement
To ensure the right to vote
for every citizen of this nation.

And to ask hard questions
About the visions of all those
who would seek to be our leaders
in 2020 and beyond

And as we resolve
To realize our goal
of building a more just
and compassionate world.

Friends, we stand,
As the musical
“Come From Away”
Says so beautifully
On the edge of a moment.

Counting
the days behind us
Not knowing
the number of days ahead

Mourning what we’ve lost
Forever and just for now

And then
Even now
Let us begin to anticipate
What “after”
might look like

Let us imagine
acting instead of being acted upon
Taking from the lessons we’ve enumerated
And the losses we’ve mourned

That we might make each day count.

For us,
for our families,
for our congregation
And for our world.