Jews have always measured time.
The Mishnah informs us that we do not just have the one new year of Rosh Hashanah. Not content to only have one, Judaism has four different new year celebrations. There's Tu'bisvat, the new year for the trees. There is Pesach, the new year for our freedom. There is also the 1st of Elul. This date is the new year for animal tithes. You can think of it as the ancient Israelite's version of April 15. These three are in addition to Rosh Hashanah.
Looking back to Hannukah, the ritual of lighting the Hannukah menorah is demonstrative of the Jewish desire to count time, to measure the seasons ... to measure our lives.
Starting on the 2nd night of Passover, we begin a ritual known as 'The Counting of the Omer.' Once the sun sets, we recite a blessing that marks that days place in that counting. We do this for 49 days days. On the day after the 49th day, we celebrate Shavuot, the day in which God gives us the Torah. Interestingly, Shavuot is the only holiday in the Torah that does not have its own Hebrew date assigned to it. We know, for example that Rosh Hashanah is the first of Tishrei, and that Passover is on the 15th of Nissan. But Shavuot is defined only in terms of Passover! This is why the holiday is called what it is; Shavuot means weeks. It occurs seven weeks after Passover. And so, for the next 49 days, we count toward the holiday.
But there's something worth noting about how we count. When I was a kid, I would always like to count the days until my birthday. I'd be sure to give my parents a constant update ... 5 days til my birthday! 2 days til my birthday!
In Judaism, though, we do not count like this. We count upwards. Again, hearkening back to Hannukah, Hillel teaches us that we light 1 candle the first night and 2 candles the second night to remind us that we should always go upwards in holiness. Thus, the counting that we do goes up. Even though it's mathematically correct to say that Shavuot is in 46 days, we should instead reflect that today is the third day of the omer.
We also mark time in our liturgy.
For the past 6 months, we have added a line to the Amidah. During the second section, g'vruot, there is a short addition in which we ask God to cause the wind to blow and the rain to fall. But just as there is a time to plant and a time to sew, there is a time in Israel when rain is no longer considered a blessing. The sun needs to shine on the crops. And so, starting on Pesach, we no longer ask God to provide rain and wind. From now until Simchat Torah, we ask God to cause the dew to fall. You'll remember that as we davened the Amidah just a few minutes ago, we did change to this new blessing. The cycle of the Jewish calendar is a foundation for what prayers we say, and when.
We measure time by our Torah portions. Each week, we read through the Torah, until we begin again with Genesis on Simchat Torah. Even if we know the Torah backwards and forwards, we are still meant to go through the Torah portion each week. One reason for this is that the Torah reflects new insights to us as we grow, as we mature, as we go through life's varied and wonderful experiences.
On this Shabbat, we read a special Torah portion from Exodus, deviating entirely from the weekly order. This is yet another example of how we Jews mark time.
But as we mark and measure time, we also measure ourselves.
The Psalmist (Psalm 90) writes: Teach us to number our days, that we may attain a heart of wisdom. We do not count simply because we are excited about what's coming. We count so that we can grow into who we are becoming. We count so that we can grow upwards in holiness.
We do not just count the days leading up to shavuot. We also are meant to learn, to act, to reflect. Just as on Passover we act as though we ourselves were freed from Egypt, right now we should act as though God is giving the Torah to us. We must deserve it. To merit the receiving of Torah, this period of counting is here for us so that we can abide by the Psalmists words, and attain a heart of wisdom.