A meaningful mitzvah

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Mentioning the Counting of the Omer would likely elicit looks of bewilderment from many Bay Area Jews.

Many Jews today either have never learned or have forgotten about this stretch of 49 days that connects Passover to Shavuot.

Yet this ancient counting ritual, which began on the second night of Passover, can add depth and meaning to the lives of modern Jews.

In its simplest form, the counting is as simple as marking the days off on a calendar.

But Jason Gaber, a San Franciscan with AIDS, is a good example of someone who took the ritual a step further. Last year, he kept a journal during the counting as a way to reflect on God, his own illness and self-forgiveness.

Passover, which celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, marks our physical redemption. Shavuot, which honors God's giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, represents our spiritual redemption.

Rabbinic tradition considers each day between the two holidays as another day's travel from Egypt toward Mount Sinai. Why do we need to relive this journey each year?

Because physical freedom alone isn't enough for us. Without its spiritual counterpart, physical freedom can lead to a fixation on the material.

American Jews, as a whole, enjoy physical freedom. Some would argue that many of us revel in our material possessions, at the expense of our souls.

Counting the Omer can provide a way to reconnect to our spiritual sides.

We're still a lot like the Israelites who escaped Egypt but couldn't immediately shed their slave mentality. For them, the Counting of the Omer reflected the time needed to mentally prepare themselves to accept the responsibility of Torah.

The counting is based on a biblical commandment. Like many Jewish rituals, it is rooted in agriculture. In ancient times, Jews brought an omer, a measure of barley, as a daily offering to the Temple for the 49 days.

Today, some Jews mark the days off on their calendars and say the daily blessing.

Others take a kabbalistic approach. Using a chart of God's attributes, they meditate each day on a different characteristic of Adonai.

Some, like Gaber, add even new layers of meaning. They focus on the emotional, psychological and spiritual.

Try spending a few minutes each day during the Counting of the Omer to ponder what keeps you from fulfilling your potential as a Jew. Is it fear? Anger? Ignorance? Cynicism?

Perhaps by the time Shavuot arrives in late May, you will have reached Mount Sinai too.