In the midst of the Torah’s discussion concerning the festival cycle, immediately after the commandment concerning the Omer offering (a barley offering in the Temple which marks the beginning of the harvest and allows the use of that season’s grain), the following mandate is found:
“And you shall count for yourselves – from the day after the Sabbath, from the day you bring the waved offering of the Omer – seven weeks; complete shall they be. Until the day after the seventh Sabbath, shall you count fifty days; and you will offer a new meal offering to the Lord.”
As codified by the rabbis, this mitzva, known as the mitzva of Sfirat Ha’omer, the Counting of the Omer, obligates each Jew to verbally count the days and weeks from the second day of the holiday of Pesach until the first day of the holiday of Shavuot.
What possible purpose can there be in verbally counting the days and weeks between Pesach and Shavuot?
The Torah offers no explanation for this mitzva.
Most obviously, the Counting of the Omer is perceived by many scholars as an act of linkage between the two holidays that border the mitzva, Pesach and Shavuot. Through the act of counting we testify that the Revelation at Sinai (commemorated on Shavuot) was the goal and purpose of the Exodus from Egypt (commemorated on Pesach). This relationship is established at the outset when God informs Moshe at the burning bush: “And this is your sign that I have sent you: when you take the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
On a deeper level, our counting consequently affirms that the physical freedom of the Exodus is incomplete without the spiritual freedom granted by God’s law; a truth mirrored in the famous rabbinic dictum: “No one is truly free other than he who is involved in the study of Torah.”
By counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, many scholars continue, we also are meant to re-experience the sense of excitement and anticipation that marked this period for the Israelites, newly redeemed from Egypt. Just as we would “count the remaining days” towards an extraordinary event in our personal lives, so too we should feel a real sense of anticipation each year as we again approach the holiday that marks the Revelation at Sinai.
Other authorities choose to view these days primarily as a period of “purification from” rather than “anticipation towards.”
By the time of the Exodus, the Israelites have been defiled from centuries of immersion in Egyptian society and culture. Numerous sources, in fact, maintain that they have descended to the forty-ninth of fifty possible stages of defilement and are on the verge of becoming irredeemable. With haste, at the last moment, God pulls the nation back from the brink. The newly freed slaves, however, must now undergo a process of purification before they can encounter God and receive the Torah at Sinai. Forty-nine days – to counter each level of defilement experienced – must elapse before Revelation can take place.
By counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot each year, we remember and mark this refining journey. Just as a married woman monthly counts the days leading to her immersion in a mikva we must count and spiritually prepare ourselves for our reunion with God at Sinai.
Based on this approach, the Ohr Hachaim explains why Sfirat Ha’omer begins each year on the second day of Pesach, rather than on the first. The Exodus, he observes, occurs on the first day of the festival. For a portion of that day, therefore, the Israelites yet remain in Egypt and the journey of purification cannot yet begin.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik perceives yet another lesson embedded in the act of Sfirat Ha’omer. The Rav suggests that, in Jewish experience, an individual can perform the act of counting within two realms: the realm of Sfira and the realm of minyan (the root of each of these terms means “to count”).
When you count in the realm of minyan, the Rav explains, all that matters is the attainment of the ultimate goal, the endpoint of your counting. Nine upstanding, righteous men can assemble for a prayer service but, without a tenth, there is no minyan.
When you count in the realm of Sfira, however, things are different. Although you still count towards a goal, each individual unit in the calculation becomes a goal, as well. While someone counting precious diamonds, for example, is certainly interested in the total number of diamonds he has, he also pauses and holds each gem up to the rays of the sun, admiring its unique facets, color and shape.
The act of Sfirat Ha’omer teaches us to “count our days in the realm of Sfira” – to see each day as a goal unto itself.
Too often, we live exclusively goal-oriented lives; moving from accomplishment to accomplishment, from milestone to milestone, rarely stopping to appreciate the significance of each passing day. And yet, when all is said and done, the quality of the journey, in large measure, defines our lives – and the ordinary moments spent with family and friends are as significant, if not more significant, than the milestones themselves.
The Rav’s observation may also be mirrored in two versions of the verbal formula for Sfirat Ha’omer which have developed over the years. Some communities recite, “Today is the ----day la’Omer (literally “to the Omer”)” while others count “ba’Omer (literally “in the midst of the Omer”).” Taken together, these two versions form the balance that should mark our approach to life. On the one hand, without goals our lives are aimless. We therefore count la’Omer, towards the endpoint of the Omer count. On the other hand, never losing sight of the journey’s value, we also count ba’Omer, in the midst of the Omer.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, published by OU Press and Gefen Publishing