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Teach Us to Number Our Days
A spiritual trip down memory lane
Before posting this week’s wrap-up, I wanted to re-post a piece of mine from many years ago—from all the way back in 2004. I’m posting it because it is appropriate to the season; tonight begins the festival of Shavuot or Pentecost on the Jewish calendar, the celebration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But I’m also posting it because I wanted to reference it in the weekly wrap-up in anticipation of the upcoming holiday, and the links to the piece no longer work reliably.
My relationship to this piece is complicated. There’s much in here that I still feel, strongly, but also much in it that feels like a time capsule from an era when I was more religious, more observant, and, more important I think, deeply engaged in trying to be religious and observant, since that isn’t how I was raised. That’s not where I am at this point in my life; indeed, this year I got less than a week into counting the omer before giving up. I’ve written before about the experience of “losing my religion,” and undoubtedly I will again, and that writing makes a good companion to the below, if you really want to go down the Millman rabbit hole.
I’ve edited this lightly to remove a few couple of stray references that no longer are timely, to clean up typos and other similar errors, and so forth. Nothing of substance has been altered.
“Teach us to number our days, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom.”
The quote is from Psalm 90, a psalm recited on Sabbath and Festival mornings as part of the sequence of introductory psalms and songs that precede and introduce the main morning prayer service.
It’s a peculiar exhortation, isn’t it? What on earth does it mean to “number our days”—literally to count them, as a prisoner marks his time in scratches on a wall? Or as Silas Marner did alone with his golden hoard? The context suggests a rebuke to vanity: We should be wise if we number our days because that number is finite and, in comparison to God’s infinitude, unworthy of notice, so we should be humble before Him, and not incur His wrath. But this still leaves open the question: what does it literally mean?
Well, once a year traditional Jews quite literally number our days—the days between Pesach and Shavuot (Passover and Pentecost). Part of the commemoration of this period is a literal counting, of a period known as the omer—which just means “portion;” you can have an omer of flour or of any number of other agricultural commodities. Every day during the omer, right after the evening prayer service, a Jew is supposed to say a short blessing and then count: This is the thirteenth day, comprised of one week and six days, of the omer! This is the twenty-fourth day, comprised of three weeks and three days, of the omer! This is the thirty-ninth day, comprised of five weeks and four days, of the omer!
And so forth.
It is a bit more edifying than it sounds. This year, I counted each night with my son when I put him to bed. [Note: this was 2004, when my son was not yet 2 years old.] Integrating it into a nighttime routine made it more likely I would actually do it, since I do not regularly attend daily evening services, and Moses didn't seem to mind, and over the course of time figured out that there was a new bit to the routine, and began to parrot the word omer and say, “amen!” when the brief prayer was done.
But, while a bit more edifying than it sounds, it is still quite a mechanical sort of mitzvah. And what's more, there's an aspect of the mitzvah that reinforces this sense of the mechanical: It's one of the few mitzvot for which you do not receive part credit. That is to say: You have successfully performed the mizvah only if you have counted every day of the 49-day period, without fail. I’ve never done so, myself. This year, I got halfway—to day 25—before a full 24-hour lapse. And after a lapse, it’s hard to go through the motions, given that they don't count. Which only raises the question: why are you going through them before the lapse? In what sense does this counting ever “count?”
As I noted, this whole business of “numbering our days” is tied up with recognition of our mortality, and the enormous gulf that our mortality opens up between ourselves and the Almighty. But what, apart from our relative insignificance, are we to learn from that gulf? What is the nature of the wisdom we are supposed to acquire?
The question recalls to me what is probably my least-favorite midrash of all. It’s a little long, but bear with me. Here it is:
It is told that when the son of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai died his students came to comfort him. Rabbi Eliezer came in and sat before him and said, “Master, would you allow me to say something before you?”
“Speak,” said the master.
Rabbi Eliezer said, “Adam had a son who died but he allowed himself to be comforted. We know this because the Torah says, ‘Adam knew his wife again.’ (Genesis 4:25) You must also now allow yourself to be comforted.”
“Is it not enough,” said the master, “that I have my own trouble? Must you also remind me of Adam’s grief?”
Rabbi Yehoshua then came in and said, “Would you like me to say something to you?”
“Job had sons and daughters and they all died on one day. He allowed himself to be comforted. You must also allow yourself to be comforted. We know that Job allowed himself to be consoled, as it is written, ‘God has given, God has taken. May God’s Name be blessed.’ (Job 1:21)”
“Is it not enough that I have my own troubles? Must you also remind me of Job’s troubles?”
Rabbi Yosi then entered and sat down before the master. “Master,” he said, “Would you like me to say something before you?”
“Aaron had two great sons and they both died on one day. He allowed himself to be comforted as it is written, ‘Aaron remained silent.’”
“Is it not enough that I have my own troubles? Must you remind me of Aaron’s grief?”
Rabbi Eliezer entered and said to him, “Master, would you like me to say a word before you?”
“David had a son who died and he allowed himself to be comforted. You must also allow yourself to be consoled.”
“Is it not enough that I have my own grief? Must you remind me of King David’s mourning?”
Rabbi Eleazar Ben Azariah then entered. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai saw him he said to his servants, “Take the vessel from in front of me and follow me to the bath house. This person is a great man and I cannot withstand him.” [The significance of the bath is that one is not permitted to bathe while in the earliest stages of mourning. R. Yochanan ben Zakkai is saying that R. Eleazar ben Azariah is such a great debater that he will not be able to resist his arguments, and so he knows he will be emerging from his deepest mourning soon, hence the bath.]
When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai returned, Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said to him, “Let me give you an example. A king once gave one of his subjects a precious object to watch. Every day the man would weep and say, ‘Woe is me; when will I be rid of this article and give it back in peace?’ The same is true of you, Master. You had a son who knew Torah, Prophets, Writings, Mishnah, and Laws and Aggadah. He died without sin. You must be reconciled that you have returned this precious object whole.”
The master said, “Rabbi Eleazar, my son, you have comforted me as people must be comforted.”
I said this was probably my least-favorite midrash ever. I appreciate one side of this midrash, that the righteous should not take comfort in their suffering from the misfortunes of others. But Rabbi Eleazar’s speech I do not like at all. It gives me the willies to think of life this way, as a trial merely to be got through without harm to one's soul. Surely the trial itself has a purpose; surely what matters is not merely avoidance of evil but the doing of good. Surely we are in a world of experience to have experience. Conceiving of the entirety of creation as a temptation strikes me as a very bad way to view the world. Perhaps it is only because I am an American, but this way of looking at the world does not comfort me; it fills me with claustrophobia.
But it’s a funny thing about experience: It exists only in the present. Before that it is fantasy; after, nostalgia. It only is for a fleeting instant. So how does it “count.”
I believe I've mentioned that Anna Karenina is my favorite novel and, I'd argue, the greatest novel ever. [Note: ah, youth, when one is inclined to make pronouncements like “Anna Karenina is the greatest novel ever.”] I could muster many arguments for that opinion, but let me present one here: its terrible realism about spiritual experience.
Recall the mainspring of the plot: Anna’s affair with Vronsky. Her husband, Aleksey, has by this point in the novel found the affair out, and Anna is, so she thinks, dying, while in childbirth, and calls for him. He comes.
All of a sudden she shrank back, was silent; and in terror, as though expecting a blow, as though to defend herself, she raised her hands to her face. She had seen her husband.
“No, no!” she began. “I am not afraid of him; I am afraid of death. Aleksey, come here. I am in a hurry because I’ve no time; I’ve not long left to live; the fever will begin soon and I shall understand nothing more. Now I understand, I understand it all, I see it all!”
He comes. She asks for what she knows she has no right to expect, but knows now she will receive: complete forgiveness. She is not disappointed.
The nervous agitation of Aleksey Aleksandrovich kept increasing, and had by now reached such a point that he ceased to struggle with it. He suddenly felt that what he had regarded as a nervous agitation was on the contrary a blissful spiritual condition that gave him all at once a new happiness he had never known. He did not think that the Christian law that he had been all his life trying to follow enjoined him to forgive and love his enemies; but a happy feeling of love and forgiveness for his enemies filled his heart. He knelt down, and laying his head in the curve of her arm, which burned him as with fire through the sleeve, he sobbed like a little child. She put her arm around his head, moved toward him, and, with defiant pride, raised her eye.
“That is he. I knew him! Now, forgive me, everyone, forgive me!”
Her lover, Vronsky, comes in, and hides his face in his hands. Anna demands he uncover it and, when he does not do so, instructs her husband to uncover it for him.
Aleksey Alksandrovich took Vronsky’s hands and drew them away from his face, which was awful with the expression of agony and shame upon it.
“Give him your hand. Forgive him.”
Aleksey Aleksandrovich gave him his hand, not attempting to restrain the tears that streamed from his eyes.
“Thank God, thank God!” she said. “Now everything is ready.”
She passes into delirium, and the assembled expect her imminent death. But it does not come, not then.
Her husband makes this sense of his epiphany: that he must never leave her, never divorce her, never stand upon his rights or his dignity lest this undermine the truth of his forgiveness of her, his emptying out of self. Vronsky, awed and shamed by this saintly behavior, attempts suicide; his attempt begins the process of rekindling Anna’s love for him, embers that are fanned further by the increasingly curdled quality of Aleksey’s saintly forgiveness; and in the end, Anna leaves her husband yet again, this time for good. Aleksey takes refuge in a spiritualist sycophant and worships at the altar of his own saintliness. Anna loses contact with her son, the only being who might have comforted her when Vronsky begins to tire of revolving around her star, and so, when she begins to fear that she will have lost everything, she turns impulsively to suicide, and is successful.
What are we to make of all this? The death-bed scene, for me, loses none of its power with the knowledge that its truths are fleeting. This knowledge, rather, makes the scene all the more terrible, terrible in its realism. For the present is gone almost before it has been, and that is truer than the present truths. These three scaled spiritual heights in a moment: Aleksey is suffused with a true, selfless Christian spirit of forgiveness; Anna does recognize his saintliness; Vronsky is brought face to face with the un-Godly nature of his values, and is shamed nearly to death. This is all true, absolutely true. But it is a fleeting truth—”like grass which groweth up./In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth.” The moment cannot be grasped and held and, if worshipped in Aleksey’s manner, it is as much as to make it a false god, an idol. Anna has lived beyond her own tale's end, beyond the moment that, had she died in it, she might have thought she had redeemed her life. But she lived on, and she did not know how to turn this redemptive moment of deathbed repentance into a redemptive life.
The domestication of truth, leveling spiritual mountains and turning the soil for humble cultivation: This is what many “spiritual” people hate about religion. But it is religion’s primary function. It is what turns mere experience into life, into something that may be counted, something that “counts.” The omer counts the period between the two peak spiritual experiences of the Jewish people: the exodus from Egypt and the theophany at Sinai—two experiences that are, according to tradition, unique in the history of the universe, and two epiphanies that every Jew is to regard him or herself as having personally experienced. And how do we connect these peak moments? By means of the most mechanical counting—today is the eighteenth day, comprised of two weeks and four days, of the omer!
So I’ll go on counting. Maybe next year, I’ll make it to the end, and my numbered days will finally “count.”