The English verb 'to mourn' has its etymological roots in many languages, including Saxon, Norse and High German. 'To mourn', evolved from the verb, murnan, which means ‘to be sorrowful’ and ‘to grieve’, but it can also mean ’to care for’ or ‘to worry about’ someone. Clearly, at the root of all those emotions is a deep love; for to mourn is to express that love, both in life and beyond the grave. 

Rabbi David: The 7-week Omer period has, historically, been a season of mourning. Last year, we reflected on the traditional Jewish custom of foregoing haircuts for a large part of the Omer, thereby marking a terrible plague which wiped out thousands of students studying at the academy of the renowned first century sage, Rabbi Akiva. This year, once again, the Omer has coincided with the Covid-19 plague, and with the current closure of hair salons and barbers. Our inability to get a haircut has such a deep resonance with some of the time-honoured Jewish mourning rituals, including not shaving, foregoing makeup, and covering up mirrors during the first few days after losing a loved one. It is this conscious act of not looking our best, which can enable us to express how the loss of a loved one has left us feeling in a state of disarray both internally and externally. And that is why, over this weekend, before rushing out for a haircut when salons re-open on Monday, let us sit with our unkempt Omer tradition of mourning, and reflect on all those whom we have loved and lost. 

Rabbi Helen: Many in the Jewish community have adopted the tradition of having an Omer calendar, that allows us to mark the days between Pesach and Shavuot as we symbolically make the journey from liberation to revelation. The Omer calendar in our prayerbook for the festivals describes this as being a period when we move from facing freedom to losing the way. It is an evocative description of the task of our Israelite ancestors as they left Egypt, a motley crowd of ex-slaves, unused to the autonomy demanded from free individuals. Being free gives each one of us the unenviable task of constantly making choices and sometimes we lose the way. At this time in the Omer we face the reality of when humanity has lost its way and persecuted those who are ‘other’, and so we mourn our people who lost their lives during the darkness of the Shoah. But being free also allows us to make new and positive choices and regain a sense of the journey of the Jewish people, so next week we celebrate the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. 

Returning to the English word ‘to mourn’, its root in Norse and Saxon, murnan, can also mean to care or to worry, and that too has resonance in this Omer period as we begin to face renewed freedom from Covid restrictions, still worrying about our loved ones who may be waiting for their vaccine or even be struggling with the effects of long Covid. As we make this symbolic journey from liberation to revelation, during the period of the Omer, may we recommit ourselves to making contact with all those we meet along the journey, especially those who need the support of the community.