When I was five, I remember swinging on the swingset in our backyard in rural Arizona, and ruminating on what my dad’s birthday meant for the world of numbers. (I was always thinking as a child – only quiet on the outside.) I was just learning to count, and although I must have known abstractly that numbers larger than 39 existed, I just couldn’t grasp it until my dad turned 40. On that day, my dad’s concrete example of being 40 years old turned a number real for me in a surprisingly visceral way, and I swung there, caught up in the wonder of it all.
A quarter-century later, and numbers still interest me. As Passover begins, we enter a Jewish season of counting, S’firat Ha’Omer, “the counting of the omer.” An omer is a unit of grain, but this counting does not have to do with measurements of things but rather tracking the progression of time. Leviticus 23:15-16 reads:
“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 counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.”
The fiftieth day is Shavuot, and so S’firat Ha’Omer becomes a symbolic counting from the moment of leaving Egypt to the moment of receiving Torah on Mt. Sinai. A tradition developed to read from Pirkei Avot during this season of counting, reading the ethical exhortations of our ancestors in preparation for reconnecting to divine wisdom on Shavuot.
Pirkei Avot (c. 2nd century CE) contains many wise sayings that continue to resonate today. Its framing message evokes the symbolic counting from Passover to Shavuot, focusing not on things, nor time exactly, but rather the chain of tradition handed from person to person to person. Chapter 1 begins: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; the Prophets handed it down to the Great Assembly…Shimon the Just was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly…Antigonus of Socho received from Shimon the Just…” and so on. Hillel and Shammai are in the chain, and the mantle of leadership and scholarship continues to be passed down from generation to generation, until today.
When we learn from Pirkei Avot during the Counting of the Omer, we are claiming a link in the chain, claiming that we count in the ongoing revelation of wisdom we call Torah. This week and for the next six weeks, until Shavuot, I’ll be exploring one teaching a day (except for Shabbat) through Facebook Live.
If you are on Facebook and want to watch these short videos, you can find them posted on my page. As Hillel says (Avot 1:13), “One who does not increase one’s knowledge, decreases it.” As we count the days towards Shavuot, let the numbers of this season become real for us through steadily increasing in curiosity and just perhaps in wisdom.