Mother Goose is “counting” her eggs, and while we don’t know if she’s actually “counting”, regardless, we look at it and smile. There’s something about that image that portrays a feeling of care, maybe because counting is an act of care. We don’t count things that don’t matter to us, but we are very precise with what we love.
This idea might initially not sound so good. It stands in contradiction with what we think of love. Love should be free, flowing, not measured. But – how about this: we might attend an event and later say that there were “lots of people”, “tens”, “dozens”, “few”, “I don’t know” how many. Yet, we don’t say, “I have lots of parents”, “some spouses”, “few children”, “countless best friend”.
Rabbi Hirsch of the 19th century, teaches that S.P.R. or S.F.R., the Hebrew root for counting, is about “combining separate items, tally sums”. Thus, sofer is someone who counts, but also a scribe and author (someone who “recounts”-). Sefer is a book, sapir, sapphire is a precious stone composed of many crystals and mispar is a number.
The Torah speaks of counting several times and they can shed a light on each other. At this season, we are in the midst of one of these counts: Sefirat Ha’Omer is about counting the days 7 weeks (i.e. 7 times 7) between Passover and Shau’ot. We also have to count 7 Sabbatical years till one Jubilee years as we read last week, as well as counting 7 “clean” days after various bodily discharges.
All the counts count towards an end that is dependent on that count: Shavuot is the only holiday in the Torah that has no date, but that will arrive the day after we’re done counting. The jubilee depends on everybody being on the land (or at least the majority of the Jewish people) and keeping the shmita (agricultural Sabbatical) in between. Those with bodily discharges have to count 7 days before returning to the community and the woman who counts, has to experience 7 “clean days” before she can go into the mikveh and reunite with her husband (these deserve a longer conversation…).
A count does something interesting; it focuses all our attention on the immediate; on the individual. By counting we say, this one, this day, it matters. And yet, the count also connects the one and makes it part of a bigger picture, for without the others there is no reason to count. For example, each day of the omer has its unique meaning and energy, and still, they are like beads on a necklace; they need each other, and need the whole.
Further, a count implies we’re going from somewhere and to somewhere. There is a beginning and an end, and the two are connected. Shavu’ot is also called “atzeret” – a stopping place for Passover, just like Shmini Atzeret is the stopping place for Sukkot. We can see the same pattern with the other counts. A count reminds me that we are living the moment, and the very same time, on a journey that takes us somewhere. It allows us a way to be very much present and focused, while remembering we’ve come from somewhere and are heading forward. It asks us to be here and now, and enjoy, not just the future arrival somewhere, but the scene along the way.