I am a counter. I count steps when I am walking, strokes when I am swimming and breaths when I am waiting in line. I recently learned that my mother does something similar. I don't know if this is a normal behavior or just part of my family's odd makeup, but recently while doing laps in a pool, I got to thinking about counting.
Counting calms me; provides markers for where I am in a given moment or during a particular activity. Sometimes, it is about how far I've come (wow, 12 laps already!). But just as often, it is about how far I have left to go (only three more to go!). At other times, it is to distract from the mind-numbing boredom of a long traffic light or grocery line. It is my way to locate myself in the world around me, at least momentarily.
We are the only creatures to count time. Other animals eat when they are hungry, sleep when they are tired and run away when they are scared. Even those that migrate do so because food is more plentiful in warmer weather, not because the calendar says it is autumn. Their days probably run into each other—I can't imagine my dog knowing a Tuesday from a Wednesday or caring that much anyway.
But we humans mark and distinguish and celebrate and count time. And we have developed elaborate systems in which to do that—calendars that tie the Earth's cyclical nature into an experience of the sacred. Our calendars, be they Gregorian, Hebrew, Muslim, Chinese, help us locate ourselves in what would otherwise be an overwhelming yet indistinguishable mass of constantly changing events and seasons.
For those of us whose traditions are informed by a reading of the Hebrew Bible, the act of counting time comes to us from the very beginning. G-d created the world by separating light and darkness and calling the dark night and the light day. "And it was evening and it was morning, the first day."
G-d created order out of chaos by counting time—first six days of creation and then a seventh day of rest. And then later, gave the Israelites the months by which to order their years and mark their seasons. Without a calendar to help order the seasons, when would our ancestors have known to pray for rain, offer gratitude for a healthy harvest or have faith in the returning of the sun?
We count time to create some sense of order in our chaotic world – we number and mark and celebrate and distinguish our constantly evolving and changing existence: seven years of a child's life, 20 years of marriage, three years until graduation, 11 years since a national tragedy, one day to Rosh Hashana and the start of a new Jewish year.
Without the ability to count and measure, this would all be a blur and life would pass us by, both the good and the bad, without any chance to notice that each moment, each event, each change or evolution is, in fact, a gift to cherish and claim as holy.
This is the time of the year when Jews pay particular attention to the change of the seasons and the counting of years. Our new year (5773) begins Sunday evening, Sept. 16 with Rosh Hashana. It is an opportunity for us to recognize where we have been and make adjustments on the course for where we are going. We call this process Teshuva or repentance. And although we can engage in this self-reflection at any time, we recognize that a level of deep introspection would be impossible to maintain year-long, so this time is set aside for that, distinguished by the sound of the Shofar, or ram's horn, blown every morning during the month of Elul leading up to the holiday and then 100 times on the festival day itself.
One of my favorite readings for this season is from Psalm 90: "Teach us to measure our days, so that we may gain a heart of wisdom." This is the season of counting, when we raise up to holy the act of counting itself. My wish for you and for everyone in this sacred holiday season is: May every moment of your life be blessed and may you make it count.
Go here to see Congregation Agudas Achim's High Holiday schedule.