How to Keep Counting When You Know it Doesn't Count
I have a theory: It is far easier to count Sefiras HaOmer with a Bracha, than to continue counting without.
I have not done extensive research on the question. But anecdotally, I have met very few Jews (if any) who are as diligent in counting after missing a day as they were beforehand.
To understand this phenomenon, we should begin with some Halachik clarity.
We are obligated to count forty-nine days, and seven weeks, from the second night of Pesach until Shavuos. There is a well known debate whether this obligation to count is one large mitzvah, or 49 separate mitzvos. The vast majority of opinions hold that there are 49 separate obligations. However, in deference to the opinion of the Behag, the Shulchan Aruch rules that if one forgot to count a day of Sefira, one should continue to count without a bracha. (Since we do not make brachos in cases of doubt.)
Practically speaking, The Shulchan Aruch rules that we should still count Sefiras HaOmer everyday, even after skipping a day. Even after skipping forty eight days. We should still count – just without a Bracha. The Mishna Berura adds that in such a situation, we should make sure to hear the bracha from someone else.
But that is not what happens in our lives and communities. It is far more difficult – emotionally – to count sefira without a bracha than with a bracha! As far as the Shulchan Aruch is concerned, it's obvious that we should keep counting. But no one does, because our Yetzer Hara, apparently demands absolute success, or insists on failure.
We know this Yetzer Hara well. It's the same Yetzer Hara that convinces us to give up on Daf Yomi when we fall behind, that gives us permission to “start the diet tomorrow” because we already “cheated today”.
This Yetzer Hara gently encourages us that “it's ok, next year you'll count sefira properly”, while abandoning dozens of mitzvos that could still be accomplished now.
(Fascinatingly, the Otzar Chaim records that the custom of Komarna was to continue counting with a bracha even after missing a day. The Sh'arim Metzuyanim B'Halacha explains that this custom – against the Shulchan Aruch – arose since people no longer have the wherewithal to count Sefira at all after failure. This practice, to the best of my knowledge, has not been accepted. The mainstream opinion is to somehow contend with our powerfully destructive Yetzer Hara.)
The answer to this dissuasive inner voice is as obvious as it is difficult. We need to remind ourselves that “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”
We still want to do good things, even if they are incomplete. We can get back on track with our Daf and diet. We can catch up, and make up for lost time. We may have planned to run five miles, but even a ten minute walk is better than sitting on the couch. Loosing a day doesn't have to mean loosing momentum. There is more to gain in doing a little than doing nothing.
We all know this to be true; it's how we bounce back, try again, and eventually succeed.
But if we're honest with ourselves, Sefiras HaOmer is different from all of these examples. In a very painful way, failure in counting the Omer is far more analogous to the most challenging parts of life than we might imagine at a first glance.
To explain: It is possible to have a bad day on a diet, and still, somehow, fit into the suit or dress that we had tailored for a wedding. It's possible to miss a few days of the Daf and catch up. In many areas of life, we can fix things up so that it's as if the mistakes never happened.
Tragically, however, no matter how much we are careful to count Sefiras HaOmer after missing a day, we can never recover those lost Brachos. There is something that is now irreparably lost, and we cannot go back in time. No amount of conscientiousness and dedication can change the reality that we are not going to be making Brachos on counting Sefira this year.
Overcoming this Yetzer Hara is a far more challenging struggle. But this Avoda is arguably the most important work of our lives.
Dedicating ourselves to counting Sefira without a bracha is acknowledging that in life we cannot go back, but that we can go forwards. It requires a deep understanding that whatever has happened in the past, this moment is where I am right now. My Avoda starts here.
This perspective is essential in every relationship we hope to maintain, it's in every goal we attempt to achieve. There are times that we can fix our mistakes, but then there are mistakes that we cannot repair. In the moments where we discover the extent of our failures and every fiber of our being resonates with discomfort, we desperately want walk away. We dismissively conclude “I guess that didn't work out.” We throw our hands in the air, and move on.
But we never really move on.
These loose ends of our abandoned efforts tend to fester and grow into black holes of despair in our hearts and minds. They expand into those painfully awkward silences between siblings, friends, neighbors and colleagues. The unanswerable questions of “why don't you guys just sit down and figure it out?” The more we try to ignore, it, the more we feel the pain and shame. We pile excuses on top of excuses; discomfort building in the dark.
To count without a bracha is to lean boldly into the awkwardness. To make a call that starts with “I don't know if there is any way to fix this. But I don't want us to feel this way about each other forever.” It means starting Daf Yomi on Daf 51 of Yevamos, knowing that we will not be able to catch up. It means starting the diet on the eighth day of Pesach.
The secret of Sefiras HaOmer is that there is still work to be done and growth to achieve; even or especially in the places of failure and imperfection.
Perhaps this is the deepest lesson of Sefiras HaOmer. As we rise from slavery and persecution, there are parts of our personal and national narratives that we wish we could ignore. There are flaws and failures that we hoped we could simply dismiss. But the journey from Egypt to Sinai demands that we bring our baggage with us.
We may not be able to fix history, but we can fix ourselves – even a little. Imperfect as it may be, fixing starts with counting today, tonight, whenever you're reading this.
Hashem should help us to count every day, to make every day count.