The Orange and the Omer

Posted on April 9, 2021

by Rabbi Jordi Schuster Battis

I had a friend in high school who claimed that absolutely anything could be compared to an orange. 

A book is like an orange because… it is has a covering that doesn’t reveal everything that is inside.  You have to open it up to get the goods.

Math class is like an orange because… oranges can be sliced and divided up in all sorts of different ways.

High school friendships are like an orange because… sometimes they’re sweet and sometimes they’re sour and get stuck in your teeth.

Feel free to try it.  I’m pretty sure that she’s right, that almost anything can be compared to an orange.  If you have any comparisons you end up feeling really proud of, please send them my way.

Sadly, as far as I know, oranges weren’t known in the Ancient Near East, so the ancient rabbis didn’t know that Torah is also like an orange:  it is full of nourishment, and it has seeds within it that can grow beautiful and delicious new fruit in every generation.  Sometimes when you bite into it, it makes you shudder a little.  Other times, it is pure delight.  And there is always more to notice about it, if you just keep peering closer inside.

Since they couldn’t compare everything to oranges, throughout history, rabbis have had to develop something else to compare everything to.  More often than not, the thing that rabbis have made comparisons to is:  the Wilderness—

We were slaves in Egypt.  We made it out and we made our way to the Promised Land.  But in order to get there, we had to spend a huge amount of time wandering in the desert.  We had to continue to learn and explore and find out about who we were as a people.  We had to discover how to take care of ourselves and each other and how to build a just society.  We had to think we knew where we were going, and get it wrong a lot of the time.  We had to learn how to develop rituals, and learn when to work and when to rest.  We had to learn how to appreciate the miracles of the world around us, how to say thank you, and how to feel awe.  We had to learn about our own power and also to feel humility. 

All of these things take time, and the path is not straight.  The Promised Land is always just a little farther on. 

The Wilderness is a really good comparison for almost any moment in our lives.

That said, the fact is that right now, in the metaphor of the Wilderness, we are all in different places at this particular moment.  Some folks here, who are fully vaccinated and beginning to see people or to travel, may feel like they are almost in the Promised Land.  Others, like kids, and parents of kids who are just heading back to full-time school after 13 months of remote and hybrid learning may feel like they are just barely leaving slavery.  Others may feel like they’re still lost in the Wilderness, not sure where they’re headed or how long it will take to get there, with the rules seeming to change all the time.

With spring here but so much still unknown and changing every day; with new challenges in our society raised and old struggles brought to light, some of us may feel like we are in all of these places in our Wilderness journey at the same time.

But a part of the Wilderness metaphor that I think can tie all of us together, even though we may all be feeling like we are at different points in the story, is the metaphor of counting the Omer. 

The Torah teaches that after the festival of the first day of Passover, we should “count off seven weeks – שִׁבְעָ֥ה שָׁבֻעֹ֖ת תִּסְפָּר־לָ֑ךְ” (Deuteronomy 16:9), raising up your omer (the sheaf of your harvest) each day for 49 days, until—on the 50th day, the holiday of Shavuot—you bring an offering of new grain to God. 

Forty-nine days from the moment of leaving slavery behind, we count each and every day. 

Tonight we count:

Hayom shloshah asar yom, shehem shavua echad v’shishah yamim la-Omer.
Today is the 13th day, which is one week plus six days of the Omer.

And during these 49 days, we are spirituality called to be in a continual practice of leaving Egypt, Mitzrayim, which translates as, “the narrow place.”  In coming out of Egypt, in the words of Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman, we celebrate leaving behind

constriction and limitation of choice….  We journey out into the open space, which is liberating but also uncharted terrain, where we may encounter doubt, uncertainty and fear.[i] 

Our tradition teaches us that as we are journeying forth from “oppression and constriction,”[ii] we are to count every single day, out loud, making us “aware both of where we have been and where we are going,”[iii] looking toward the future, toward the bounty that lies ahead, while also acknowledging the past and appreciating the significance of this moment, wherever we are right now. 

All of us, wherever we are in our personal story of the Wilderness this year, have this opportunity to count together:  to allow ourselves to feel the weight and significance of each and every day of this period and to honor it.  To acknowledge what has been lost to us and also to call ourselves to awareness of the extraordinary blessings this particular day offers.  There will never be another day exactly like this one.  So, we count this day of our journey from constriction toward bounty by asking ourselves:

What in this day, has counted for me? 
What do I want to bring intentionality to, so it can count more?

And also:

If I open this day up, and unpeel its covering, what fruit do I find inside?
How might I divide this day up in different ways?  How do I want to slice it to be able to best
What about this day has been sweet, and what do I want to make sure doesn’t get stuck in my teeth?

This day of the Omer is like an orange.  It presents us with the opportunity to bite into it and be nourished by it.  To cast off the bitter pieces we cannot bear, or to let ourselves shiver and feel their sharp bite.  Whatever intentionality we bring to this day, not only do we count this day, but we allow it and ourselves to count.

Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam
asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tizivanu
al s’firat ha-omer.

[i] Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman, “Make the Days Count,” https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/231695?lang=bi

[ii] Cantor Lizzie Shammash, Institute for Jewish Spirituality “Yoga Studio 04.05.21 with Cantor Lizzie Shammash,”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47QTpvjMDFM.

[iii] Rabbi Brian Stoller in Omer:  A Counting.