04/23/2012 10:27 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

The Omer: Counting Our Days

"Live today, forget the cares of the past" advises a poster popular in the late 1970s. Rather than spending too much time dwelling on what has already happened, rather than squandering the present obsessing over the future, a steady stream of self-help books tell us to concentrate on today, to live now.

By living in the present we remember to perform deeds of kindness everyday, rather than resting on yesterday's goodness. By living today we encourage ourselves to spend time with the people we care about, rather than postponing that warmth for a future that may never come. "Live each day as though it were your last," is the wise advice of the Mishnah.

But, if taken too far, that focus on the present reduces human beings to the status of animals. Animals live for the moment. They don't remember the events of an hour ago, let alone of last week. Unaware of their own youth or mortality, they take every day as it comes, appreciating everyone as they are. Animals are the ultimate in non-judgmental behavior, largely due to their rootedness in the present. But they pay a high price for that presence. Unconnected to any past, they wouldn't recognize their own parents or siblings if they passed them on the street. Unaware of the future, they cannot plan ahead to protect themselves from rain, cold or sickness.

Living in the present is as much a trap as it is an opportunity. During Pesach (Passover), and for the following 50 days, God provides a way for Jews to encompass the past, present and future. In celebrating the Seder, we recreate the past. In fact, we move into the past in order to live it fully: "In every age, each person should regard themselves as having personally been liberated from Egyptian slavery." The present is represented by the gathering of family and friends around the Seder table and at the next morning's synagogue services. But what of the future? Is there a way to elevate ourselves above the constraints of our current limitations?

The method for bringing the future into the present is called Sefirat HaOmer -- counting the Omer. Beginning on the second night of Pesach, and continuing for 7x7 nights thereafter, Jewish tradition provides for counting each night.

During the biblical period, our ancestors brought the first sheaf (the literal meaning of "omer") of the barley harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem. From this period onward, Jews were then allowed to eat from the new crop. But the larger significance of the Omer is that it connects the liberation from Egyptian slavery at Pesach with the gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot. Just as Pesach leads to Shavuot, so our freedom from bondage was the necessary precursor to being able to relate to God through the performance of mitzvot. We have to be free to freely serve God.

The giving of the Torah is not merely an event that happened once upon a time, long ago in the distant past. It is a transforming event that shapes our present as well as providing a future goal that we strive to attain. Torah is a process of becoming, just as it is a standard to inspire our own growth.

We count the days between Pesach and Shavuot as a way of demonstrating our eagerness to receive the Torah yet again. Always on a journey, each human being has an opportunity to mold his or her own character and being into something more closely aligned with the divine image of compassion, involvement and love.

But to shape ourselves anew requires knowing our place of origin and our ultimate destination. Without a goal, we can't possibly know where to aim.

Sefirat HaOmer provides the pathway for our journey. With the small, incremental steps of every new evening, with the recital of the Ma'ariv prayer followed by the counting of the Omer, our connection to God and Torah is strengthened, refined and purified, for another leg of our travels.

The Mishnah reminds us where we come from and where we are going: a putrid drop is our origin, and worms our destination. Living only in the present, that bitter assessment of our physical limits is all too true. But the Mishnah goes on to instruct that we also may know before whom we stand: the Holy Blessing One.

The tension of being physical creatures reflecting a Divine image, of living in the present while aspiring toward the future, provides Jewish living with its energy and its hope. Counting the Omer is our affirmation of hope.

Join the community and conversation by visiting the Omer liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot.