Why do we count time? What is the meaning of counting our days? What, if any, is a Jewish Philosophy of time? Two writers of recently published books shared their thoughts on this topic – Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Jonanthon Sacks. Allow me to share their ideas, in hope to gain a deeper understanding of the Omer.
First, Rabbi Soloveitchik. In the newly published Festival of Freedom the very last essay is entitled "Counting Time." (a shorter version appears in David Shapiro's volume entitled Me-afeilah l'or gadol: Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on Pesach, Sefirat ha-Omer and Shavu'ot – published by the Soloveitchik Institute ob"m. Some of the ellipses from this article are filled in by this longer piece – See Section B of Excursus II of Chapter 6, pgs 150 -153).
Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his inimitable fashion develops a dialect in his approach to time – that of youth and old age. A young person anticipates what will be and experiences time with great rapidity. As a child I remember the summer lasting at least as long as the rest of of the year. He quotes a midrash that says, "At the Red Sea the beheld God as a young warrior, and at Sinia as a gray-beard who teaches children." (The citation offered is Otzar ha-Midrashim [Eisentein ed.], 486 – I was unable to locate the original and would love some help!)
Time, for the Rav, is a "merger of past and future, of recollection and anticipation." This is symbolized by counting. When we count a day of the Omer it only has meaning as part of a continuum. When is say that this is day 14 which is two weeks, that has significance only because of the prior 13 and coming 35 days.
I think that the greatest experience of this merger is in the naming of a child. We try to merge the characteristics of a loved on from the past with a prayer for the future.
Rabbi Sack's, in his new hagaddah, has some beautiful opening essays. Two of these essays deal with time – "The Omer and the Politics of Torah" & "Time as a Narrative of Hope." Here Rabbi Sacks develops the radical change that the Bible offered to our understanding of time. All ancient religions saw God as part of nature. For the Bible, God is part of history. Not only is there a Creator God of Genesis, but also a Redeeming God of Exodus. God cares what goes on in this world.
This concept of time is referred to by Lord Sacks as "covenental time." That it is our job to imagine a future that is different, and better than the past or present. This is symbolized by the overthrow of the great and mighty Egyptian empire, which, by all rights, should have been their forever. Came God and the Jewish People and we taught that no empire can last forever. "The overthrowing of this structure and the unprecedented release of a whole nation from slavery showed that societies are not immutable…Injustice, oppression, dominance, exploitation, the enslavement of the weak by the strong, are not written into the constitution of the universe…"
These two concepts of time – as juncture of past and future and covenental or redemptive – provide a framework in which the counting on the days of the omer are given new meaning.