In the beginning, I counted.
Ten fingers. Ten toes.
I ticked off the days until each bris, full of gratitude for the child in my arms, then tallied baby teeth and first words.
I added up the weeks between rolling over and sitting up, and the months between crawling and walking.
Rocking the boys to sleep, I sang nursery rhymes about counting — one two, buckle my shoe — providing musical accompaniment to their early childhoods and a memory shared with my own. Soon enough, though, the lullabies had taught them to count all by themselves.
Before I knew it, the little achievements began to get lost in the harried shuffle. Time passes swiftly, and I can hardly reckon with any measure but years. The boys race towards bigger finish lines that root me here in this world while my spirit hovers slightly above, watching in disbelief, astounded that we have already arrived to this day.
On Shavuot, too, we transcend the material world for a fleeting moment to relive, with awe and wonder, the giving of the Torah. But we reach the foot of Mount Sinai only by tracking the distance between two milestones in our development as the Children of Israel.
From the beginning, we count.
Nine months for a baby to arrive in this world. Forty-nine days of the Omer, or the seven weeks from which Shavuot, meaning “weeks,” takes its name.
We count up, not down, starting on the second night of Pesach as we celebrate our delivery from Egypt and our birth as a Jewish people. Then we climb slowly and steadily towards Shavuot, softening our hearts and purifying our souls in preparation for our birth as a nation. Like child-rearing, the holiness of the counting lies as much in taking stock of the small paces along the way as it does in reaching a destination.
Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, the omer is one of the few that enjoin us to count. The injunction is emphatic. So we gather each evening to sanctify the day and its rank in the seven-week cycle, counting together in order for the boys to know about strength in numbers. For a short while, the counting slows down the passage of time, too, allowing us to find blessings in places where we had long forgotten to look.
From waiting for the Yankees opener and watching two of their ranks prepare for their bar mitzvahs, they have already grasped that counting forward, by design, builds anticipation and that the greatest satisfaction comes from earning one’s reward. But I want them to sense it in a bigger way. I long for them to stand with me in the desert, breathlessly waiting for a tablet-bearing Moshe to descend from the mountain and reveal to us our birthright.
The Torah’s lessons are infinite and eternal, but I am reminded that it first teaches us patience. God did not just hand it to us on the other side of the Red Sea as soon as we left Egypt. Instead, we had to find our way down a carefully choreographed path until the moment when He decided we were ready. Only then, after we had agreed to all terms without even knowing what they were, did we stand trembling together — generations past, present and future — as He brought His word down into the world.
Among Shavuot’s several definitions is “the time of the giving of the Torah,” not the time when the Jewish people embraced it. It is a precious gift, I tell my sons, but we cannot place it high up on a shelf beyond our reach. We receive the Torah only when we study its language and appreciate its hidden meanings. Incorporating its values into our daily lives is what makes it our own.
Though we count the omer for a fixed period of time, we do not know the length of our stay in this world or the tally of years with which we will be blessed to watch our children grow or the number of milestones we will witness. So count, by all means, I instruct myself. Walk gently through the world, interact kindly with those around you, love with a full heart, parent patiently. Gather your good deeds wherever you can as if each moment of the journey were the last.