LTTN med xp logoCounting The Omer

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

1995 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman - All Rights Reserved
Reprinted from The Restoration newsletter, May, 1995 (Iyar/Sivan, 5755)

Becoming True Servants of the L-rd

It is most fitting to reflect upon a very special time in the Jewish calendar... the period of exactly 50 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, which literally means “the festival of Weeks”. G-d refers to this holiday in the Bible by this name, since He actually commands Israel to count off these seven weeks which lead up to Shavuot orally, and mark them by deed. We find this commandment in the book of Leviticus (23:15-16):

“You shall count seven complete weeks after the day following the Passover holiday when you brought the omer as a wave offering, until the day after the seventh week, when there will be a total of fifty days...”

The word ‘omer’ is a particular measurement, but in this context it refers to the wave-offering of the harvest’s first reaping which is brought to the priest in the Holy Temple on the second day of Passover.

Thus, these special days of counting are referred to as ‘Sefirat Ha-Omer,’ the counting of the Omer. Traditionally, these are days of introspection and self-improvement, as we spiritually prepare ourselves to re-accept upon ourselves the responsibility of the yoke of Heaven, as our forefathers did at Mount Sinai 50 days after G-d led the children of Israel out of Egyptian bondage, bringing them to the foot of Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. There, G-d presented Israel with the Torah, His divine word, and gave the Jewish people the eternal responsibility to adhere to His commandments, drawing close to Him and sanctifying His name - in short, bearing witness throughout every successive generation of human history that the G-d of Israel is King over all the earth. In fact, the very existence of the Jewish people is the greatest proof of all that G-d exists as well...

“What nation is so great that they have G-d close to it, as G-d our L-rd is, whenever we call Him? What nation is so great that they have righteous rules and laws, like this entire Torah that I am presenting before you today?

You approached and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was burning with a fire reaching the heart of heaven, with darkness, cloud and mist. Then G-d spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no image; there was only a voice...” (Deuteronomy 4: 7, 11-12)

The historical fact of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, which the holiday of Shavuot commemorates, is of primary significance for all people who seek G-d... for it illustrates that G-d seeks man as well, and that the two can come together. On Passover, with the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish nation was born. But freedom isn’t everything, and it isn’t worth much if one doesn’t know why he’s free... as the rabbis teach, “Who is truly free? Only one who is in servitude to the L-rd.”

But the Jews who left Egypt, fresh from Egyptian slavery, were not yet ready for the holy responsibility of being truly free... they needed time to prepare themselves for their life-mission, to spiritually ascend to a level where they could be servants of G-d, not of man. Thus, it was only on Shavuot that the Children of Israel became a people, and as such received a constitution... the holy Torah. In so doing, by accepting the yoke of heaven, they changed the course of history for all time... by proving that a people can walk with G-d.

Let us reflect for a moment on the Jewish concept of time and holiday commemoration, which differs drastically with people’s general notion of time. For when the Jewish people are entrusted to commemorate the Biblical holidays, it is not a question of remembering something that happened once upon a time, long ago... on the contrary, it is happening again right now, and we are exhorted - and challenged - to relive it! Thus the blessing which is recited on these sacred seasons of the L-rd reads, “in those days, in this time...” for the challenge of life is for us to latch onto the potential for spiritual growth inherent in these days, and sanctify G-d, living up to the power and promise of our own lives.

The holidays of the L-rd are not mere commemorations replete with symbolism and ritual; they present us with the opportunity to reap G-d’s blessing by connecting with their message. Thus, it is not enough for Jews to believe that G-d created the world during six days, a long time ago, and rested on the seventh; and therefore, we are obliged to rest on the seventh as well... rather, we believe that this process is constant... that G-d actually renews the creation every six days... therefore when we rest on the Sabbath, we bear witness to G-d’s constant sovereignty and power.

The challenge of the holiday of Passover is to achieve the level of spiritual birth... by becoming free. On Passover, we do not merely remember the exodus... we must take the challenge to once again be liberated from Egyptian bondage... from modern Egyptian bondage. For the pharaoh of Egypt represents the evil inclination which lurks within the heart of every man, and attempts to keep him from serving G-d, just as the pharaoh of old tried to keep our ancestors from worshipping the One true G-d... and it is that aspect of our lives which we must purge and leave behind. Thus at the seder in the hagadah, we recite that “whoever does not see himself as if he personally left Egypt on this night, has not fulfilled his Passover obligation.”

So too, when it comes to Shavuot, the holiday when the Jewish people received the word of G-d, and bequeathed it to all mankind. It does not suffice for us to recall that our forefathers once stood at Sinai and dedicated their lives to G-d... we must re-live the experience, and accept upon ourselves anew the responsibility of a life for G-d. In fact, the rabbis even teach that not only was that generation of Israel present at Mt. Sinai, but that the souls of those yet unborn were also present at that great event... and all accepted G-d’s covenant, wholeheartedly and as one man. Thus the Bible records:

“But it is not with you alone that I am making this covenant and this dread oath. I am making it both with those who are standing here with us today before G-d our L-rd, and with those who are not yet here with us today.” (Deut. 29:13-14)

So it is for us today, as we count the omer and anticipate the great occasion of the holiday of Shavuot, when we shall rededicate ourselves to the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven in the midst of our everyday lives ... we hear the clarion call that beckons us to lead a life committed to obeying the Creator. G-d is calling all of us out of that great spiritual exile to acknowledge Him; He calls us into a phase of purification as a means of preparation for what He has in store for us to do. The lesson of these days of counting, for Jews as well as Gentiles, is to move away from Egypt, from the private horrors of the Egypt within... to leave off being slaves to pharaoh, each one in his own way, slaves to our own failings and inadequacies, and to truly become trusted and loyal servants...

servants of the One true and living G-d.