Parashat Emor is one of several places in the Torah where the annual Jewish holiday cycle is detailed. One detail unique to the list here in Leviticus is what came to be called Sefirat Ha-Omer, the "counting of the omer." On the second day of Pesach, the Israelites were instructed to bring to the Sanctuary a measure of grain -- an omer -- representing the new grain for the new year. That day became the beginning of a counting of seven weeks, leading to the 50th day -- the holiday of Shavuot or "Weeks", also known as the holiday of Bikkurim, the "first fruits." So it's not really "counting omers", but the counting that is triggered by the omer offering.
The mitzvah of Sefirat Ha-omer is unusual in its simplicity. All you have to do is to say the blessing and count -- "Today is the xth day of the omer." There is no other act required, other than to say a number. We take great care not to say the number before the blessing, since once you say the number you have in fact performed the act and there would be nothing left to say a blessing over. So you'll hear people say, "Yesterday was the such-and-such day" before the blessing is said. That's to check and make sure the count is right before saying the blessing, or so that others can say the blessing and then count the proper number.
What is the significance of this counting of time? For modern people, this mitzvah exists against a backdrop of constantly counting time. We have our watches and clocks everywhere. Our schedules are detailed. Each new device we acquire -- computer, cellphone, PDA, iPad -- tells us the time. We always want to know exactly what time it is.
Not really what time it is. What our clocks really do is to alert us to how long before the next obligation on our schedule. How many minutes until I have do something down the line. When I was in high school, classes were long and often boring, and I used to look at the clock, counting the minutes until the end of the period. This moment, what I was doing now, became secondary to the end of it, to the next thing. Then of course I would do it again, waiting for the next period to be over.
Sefirat Ha-omer is also about looking ahead. But the focus is different. It's not an endless , cyclical counting of our routine or the times of the day. We count toward something of utmost importance: revelation from God, receiving the Torah. Sefirat Ha-omer does not mean that this day and this moment are subordinate to the fiftieth day. Rather, what I am doing today gets its meaning because it is a step toward Torah. It brings me closer to being ready to hear the word of God.
The counting is as simple as looking at a watch and noting the time. Almost. We add one thing -- a blessing. To remind us that what is or could be happening this day is meaningful for today, and for the fiftieth day. The day we hope to be ready, this year, to truly hear the words of the Torah when they are spoken to us as if for the very first time.