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I always found celebrating birthdays somewhat pointless, because honestly, it’s just the day we were born. Celebration is defined as “marking one’s pleasure at an important event or occasion with social activity,” so I reserve that for things like graduating, finishing a sugiah, an anniversary, a simcha… This year however, I can happily add another thing to celebrate: After 51 years, I have successfully counted the complete Omer.

“Oh, come on Avi, I’ve been doing it for 40 years. You don’t hear us tootin’ our horns! What’s the big deal?”

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Truth be told, it’s a very big deal. Not only because it is a great mitzvah (which aren’t?) but because of what it represents.

I grew up Modern Orthodox (“modern” as in “not so”), meaning I kept Shabbos, tefillin and mostly kosher – sans the occasional tuna sandwich or pizza. But beyond that, I would look at many things, like davening with a minyan, wearing tzitzit, or even making many brachas in the category of “things I don’t do.”

Looking back, I’m not sure how I thought that was okay. In truth, most of my friends operated on a similar schedule of picking and choosing what we were comfortable doing. And so, for most of my adult life, I just assumed I would never actually complete the whole Sefirat HaOmer cycle. Don’t get me wrong. In the past, I’d always had the best intentions, but I’m usually out by week three. And then this year, I made a conscious decision to make it a major priority and actually complete a full cycle. I’d like to say I never missed a night but that wouldn’t be truthful, but bless those holy rabbis of old, because I was able to pick it right back up the following night – bracha and all!

And while I can never know the powerful hidden value of counting Sefirat HaOmer – or any of Hashem’s mitzvot for that matter – the completion of this cycle has immeasurable value to me. With every night that I successfully counted, I was proving to myself that change is indeed possible. Sure, life was easier when I chose the path of least resistance, but for all intents and purposes, I wasn’t truly growing. And who ever said life’s choices were easy? Last I checked, Abraham had ten very difficult tests, along with so many holy patriarchs like Yitzchak, Yaakov, and even Yosef and Moshe Rabbeinu, so who are we to complain? If we believe that G-d already knows of our internal struggles, then packing a lunch when there’s no kosher restaurants in order to preserve the actual will of Hashem seems like a tiny price to pay.

For years, I spoke excessively during shul because I was bored and had done so most of my life and didn’t see it as such a big deal. Then in my forties, I decided to take prayer more seriously and immediately began to consciously be quiet and actually think about what I was doing. I eventually stopped talking during most of my prayers, and now I appreciate davening so much more. But that never would have happened until I decided to stop accepting the status quo and chalking it up to “just my nature.”

A wise man once said that most people lead the life that happens rather than the life they choose. I was happy singing and watching TV shows until life shook me up a bit and I began to see life as an opportunity that I was wasting. I could have ignored my small still voice, but the conscience is man’s alarm clock set to awaken us to do the right thing. Once I chose to actively prioritize my relationship with G-d, I realized that most of the changes I made weren’t so hard. It only takes a few inches of shifting to alter a missile’s trajectory. Similarly, with small, conscious changes, we can evolve into something we never thought possible. We know that Rabbi Akiva started his journey at 40 and literally became a Torah giant, reaching untold heights. Throwaway lines such as “well that’s just the way that I am,” or “I didn’t grow up that way” are just weak excuses utilized by the yetzer hara to keep us from fulfilling our destiny. Knowing this is half the battle.

Next on my agenda? Brachas with more kavanah.

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Avi Ciment lectures throughout the world and has just finished his second book, Real Questions Real Answers, and can be reached at www.AviTalks.com.
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