We are walking now. Together, in the wilderness, walking. It’s hot, and dry. Sometimes there’s no water, or the water we find has a bitter taste. We haven’t always known where our next meal will come from. Some people wish we’d never left Egypt, and there’s a lot of complaining. Some days are really hard.
In these days in-between Pesach and Shavuot, between the Jewish festivals of liberation and revelation, we walk—and we count. Beginning on the second night of Pesach, we count each day between escape from Egypt and the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai. This practice is called “counting the Omer.” Each night we say a blessing, thanking God for the commandment to count the Omer. Then we count the day: “Today is ten days, which is one week and three days of the Omer.” We do this for 49 days, until the festival of Shavuot.
This year, I really appreciate the counting.
Just before Pesach, I celebrated my Jewish “birthday,” the anniversary of my conversion to Judaism. On the same day, my youngest son received, along with the rest of his third-grade religious-school class, his first siddur, or prayer book, from our synagogue. My oldest son is attending tutoring sessions to improve his fledgling Hebrew reading skills. And my family recently took our first concrete steps towards formally converting our children to Judaism.
We are really beginning to feel like a regular part of the Jewish community, for which we are grateful.
But this journey to become part of the community has not been without difficulty.
The first time I attended afternoon minyan, I was running late. The phone rang, and I got stuck at the office. Traffic was bad. I walked into what seemed like a packed chapel, mid-service, with no open seats in the back row where I would have felt safe. Having mustered considerable courage, I grabbed a book from the cart on the way into the room and took a seat in the front row—but when the service leader announced the page number, I couldn’t find the words. I’d picked up the wrong book.
Surely, everyone was staring at me, knowing I was out of place, thinking I should just go home.
Then there was the first time I sat at the benching table to sing the Birkat HaMazon, the Grace After Meal prayer, after Kiddush lunch on Shabbat. Someone kindly handed me a blue bencher so I could sing along, and a small cup of grape juice, which I drank. And then I realized, to my horror, that I was supposed to save the small cup of grape juice until the end of the prayer.
Surely, everyone was starting at me, knowing I was out of place, thinking I should just go home.
I don’t know how many times I forget to put kippot (yarmulkes) on my boys’ heads before we entered the sanctuary. And there was the time my then seven-year old threw a fit in the crowded social hall and threw a siddur to the ground, right at the rabbi’s feet.
There have been so many fumbling missteps, embarrassments, and mistakes. And yet, like the miracles experienced by the Israelites as they traveled toward Mt. Sinai, there have also been moments of grace, kindness, and blessing.
At that first afternoon minyan, a woman saw my mistake and gently took the wrong book from my hands, handed me her siddur, and helped me find the right words on the page. In the crowded social hall, the rabbi quietly picked up the siddur my son had thrown to the floor and kissed it. One day after services, I told a woman that I didn’t think I’d ever really have a religious place of my own, but she stopped me short: “Did you hear what you just said?” she asked. “You said you’d never have a place. Why is that?”
And with that, I began to think that I might have a place after all.
Sometimes in life, we experience high points of liberation, when we feel newly free and joyful. Pesach moments. Sometimes in life, we experience moments of deep connection to God and people, a true sense of belonging. Shavuot moments. What amazing, precious, and transformational moments these Pesach and Shavuot moments are! As much as we might want to hold onto them, though, they pass. And we wander yet again.
After Shavuot—the holiday of revelation and covenant, the formative pinnacle of the Jewish story—the next holiday on the Jewish calendar is Tisha B’Av—the day when we remember the destruction of the Temple and pogroms, persecution and loss. The absence of God. Sometimes in life, we experience moments of utter loneliness and pain. Tisha B’Av moments.
This is part of the honest beauty of the Jewish story, and the Jewish calendar. It recognizes that we have these peak experiences and moments of connection—like both Pesach and Shavuot—and we also have moments of loss, confusion, and pain—like Tisha B’Av. In life, we must allow room to fully experience both the high and the low points. At the same time, we recognize that while the big moments might change us, we don’t dwell in them forever. We move on. We travel, together, stumbling and fumbling and sometimes complaining, searching for a promised land, following God as best we can.
As I reflect on my family’s stumbling, fumbling, sometimes difficult journey into Jewish community, I recall life-changing moments of gratitude and connection—as well as moments of isolation and difficulty. But mostly, I recall a slow and steady stretch of many days of journeying.
My family and I have journeyed a long way on the path into Jewish community. Counting the Omer reminds me that it is the small, everyday steps of the journey that have made the journey what it is. I know now that the important thing is to keep on walking, even when the path seems difficult. I also know that we do not travel alone, that small gifts of human kindness can feel like manna from heaven, and that each step—and each day—counts.
Photo by reibai (Attribution via Flickr Creative Commons)