One explanation for this custom is that 12,000 pairs of disciples of Rabbi Akiva died of a plague during this season, until the plague lifted on the 33rd day, or Lag b’Omer, which became a joyful, if minor, festival. Why were they afflicted with the plague? The Talmud says, “Because they failed to treat each other with respect” (Yevamot 62b).
It’s not hard to imagine the brilliant young students of the greatest rabbi of their generation competing for recognition and status, and disrespecting each other as they did so. Another way to put this is that they lacked humility, and the days of counting the Omer seem designed to teach us some humility. After all, we have just been delivered from Egypt and seen the waters of the Sea of Reeds split apart so we could walk through on dry land. We’ve seen our enemies destroyed and the glory-cloud of God leading us forward to a fresh encounter with him at Mount Sinai. So, perhaps we’re instructed to count the days in preparation for this encounter so we can develop some humility before it comes.
The same truth applies to the period after Yeshua’s resurrection, which took place on the first day of the Omer. Our Master has risen from the dead, declared that all authority in heaven and earth is given to him, and commissioned us proclaim his message and teach all nations. But then the Master tells us that we have to wait awhile before we actually go forth, because we don’t yet have what it takes to accomplish the task: “So stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).
Yeshua’s followers obeyed his instructions and finished out the days of counting the Omer that year in Jerusalem, waiting for the power they’d need to move forward. As they waited, “They all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication . . .” (Acts 1:14) and, “when the Day of Shavuot had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place” (Acts 2:1). Remember that some of this one-accord bunch were the same folks who were jockeying for position a few weeks back, like the sons of Zebedee who wanted to sit right next to Yeshua when he came into his kingdom—and the rest of the sh’lichim who got angry at them for even making the request (Matt. 20:20-24). Now, all that’s gone and they are praying together and awaiting further direction from above.
Yeshua’s followers are learning what I call humility-in-community. You can contrast this with humility-in-solitude, although I’m not promoting one over the other. You need them both. We might attain humility-in-solitude in a lone encounter with the living God, who reduces us to nothing in his sight. It’s the humility that Moses got when he fell on his face at the burning bush, and that Isaiah got when he saw the Lord high and lifted up, and said “Woe is me…”
For Moses and Isaiah, this humility-in-solitude was genuine, of course, and enabled them to go out and serve their people for many years, during which they also attained humility-in-community. But humility-in-solitude can sometimes be distorted into a badge of pride, as one someone boasts, or implies a boast, about his spiritual attainments. It’s the sort of twist that shows up in the story about a Yom Kippur service in one synagogue. They come to the part of the service where worshipers traditionally prostrate themselves and confess their sins. The rabbi gets down on the floor and says, “O God, I’m nothing! I’m nothing!” The cantor looks at the rabbi, gets down on the floor next to him and says, “O God, I’m nothing! I’m nothing!” Mr. Schwarzenberger in the front row looks at the rabbi and at the cantor, shrugs his shoulders, gets down on the floor, and says, “O God, I’m nothing! I’m nothing!” At that, the cantor nudges the rabbi and whispers, “Psst, so look who thinks he’s nothing!” Now, lest you think I’m picking on the synagogue, you can see the same sort of humility as a badge of pride among folks who constantly say things like, “Don’t thank me, just praise the Lord,” or “It wasn’t me at all, I can’t do anything—it was all the Lord.” They’re right, I suppose, but it sounds like they’re showing off somehow.
Humility-in-solitude is liable to such abuse, and humility-in-community can be the remedy. That’s why Yeshua has his followers wait together and pray together in one mind, free of their old competitiveness, until the day of Shavuot and the empowerment from on high. That’s why counting the Omer is ultimately a communal act. We might do it in our own homes, but we are part of the larger process of counting among all Israel. In the UMJC we’ve initiated a tradition of unified prayer during this period, where we lay aside our individual priorities at least for a few minutes each day, recite the blessing for counting the Omer, and pray together in one accord for the Messianic Jewish community and all Israel. (For more information on the UMJC prayer campaign, and a prayer guide, click here.)
So, during the days of the Omer, here’s an exercise in humility-in-community. Since the opposite of this kind of humility is comparison and one-upmanship, watch out for that tendency in yourself. Guard against comparing yourself with others and competing for recognition and status like the sons of Zebedee. Learn from the followers of Akiva to treat friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with respect. Seek an opportunity each day of counting the Omer to affirm, celebrate, and support the successes of another. As we do, we’ll arrive at Shavuot ready for a fresh encounter with the Lord.
(This d’rash first appeared at www.umjc.org)