We are counting. Again. In the spring we count the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot. At this time of year we count 40 days from the New Moon of Elul until Yom Kippur. There is an interesting paradox to be discovered here. The counting in the spring (Sefirat ha-Omer) is an actual count—we say a blessing each day and count up the days–one to fifty. The Hebrew slaves who were leaving Egypt had no idea how many days journey it was through the desert to Mount Sinai. The count is our commemorative process of their journey from Hebrew slaves to a free Jewish people. So we count the days.
The 40 days leading up to Yom Kippur were counted by the Jews as they were still encamped around Mount Sinai. This count was a rectification for a miscount (miscalculation) of the initial 40 days Moses had ascended the mountain. The people panicked in not seeing their spiritual leader descend from the mountain and assumed he had died. To their chagrin, he returns with the God inscribed tablets, only to smash them at the idol they had fashioned. The Torah narrative is vague on the specifics—it only states that the people felt Moses’ return to them was delayed. In our common everyday experience, when someone is late, one response is worry—are they ok? The explanation given through the oral tradition is that the people miscounted. Had they been counting correctly they would have realized that he would return later on that very day—the 17th day of the month of Tammuz.
After a month and a half interval, Moses ascends the mountain again and is in communion with God for another 40 days. He receives the second tablets and returns to the people on the 10th of Tishrei—the day that is to be for Jews the Day of Atonement—Yom Kippur. This time the people counted accurately. We are very aware of this 40 day period of time and yet we do not count the days. We are very aware of the days (aided by the daily blowing of the shofar) but we do not count the days.
We commemorate a process that was not counted by counting (50 days) and commemorate a process that was counted by not counting (40 days). This paradox reveals to us that our actions follow our awareness of the need for growth, emotionally and spiritually. As the Hebrews left Egypt they were still living in the past (and in the future) and not yet capable of living in the present. At most, they might have been capable of counting away from the past (3 days, 10 days away from Egyptian slavery). We though can count with the awareness of each day—we count up toward the future but in a way that honors each day as its own. Conversely, the Israelites needed to count the second time Moses ascended because they had miscounted and lost their faith. We, who know the story of the second tablets, can count on God for forgiveness. When we have faith then we don’t need to count toward forgiveness. We know it is present if we do not keep making the same mistakes. Yom Kippur then is the gift to us—the confirmation that we have done the work necessary to receive fully again—to be in relationship—to know we can start over, anew.
Last year a small group of 20 gathered for services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that incorporated meditation and kabbalah teaching. We will offer that service this year on the first day of Rosh Hashanah and the eve (Kol Nidrei) and day of Yom Kippur (location to be announced). In addition to our service that is open (and free) there are other open services offered by HEA (the new Shir Hadash service will be held for the High Holidays), Judaism Your Way at the Denver Botanic Gardens, Aish Denver, the many Chabad Houses, National Jewish and area synagogues.