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Parshat Emor: Sefiras Ha-Omer - A Bridge from Past to Future

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Apr 30, 2010

A large section of Parshas Emor - chapter 23 - deals with the annual holiday cycle that marks the Jewish calendar. Interestingly, alongside the presentation of the major Yomim Tovim, the Torah also presents the mitzvah of Sefiras Ha-Omer. From the second day of Pesach, when the Korban Omer is offered, "u-sefartem la'chem mi'macharas ha-Shabbos," we are commanded to count every day for seven weeks until, "ve'hikravtem minchah chadasha la'Hashem," the Korban Minchah is offered on Shavuos (Va'Yikra 23:15-16).

When considering the mitzvah of Sefiras Ha-Omer in relation to the holidays mentioned in this section, a surprising anomaly emerges. Like other mitzvos or experiences that occur on an annual basis, the berachah of Shehecheyanu is recited at the start of the various holidays. It is surprising, therefore, that no such blessing is recited at the start of Sefiras Ha-Omer. After all, it would appear that this mitzvah is no less a candidate for Shehecheyanu than any of the holidays mentioned in the chapter. The annual fulfillment of the mitzvah of Sefiras Ha-Omer parallels the annual celebration of the Yomim Tovim so the question is, therefore, why don't we recite Shehecheyanu when beginning Sefiras Ha-Omer?

The Ba'al Ha-Maor (13th century, Provence) famously explained that in addition to annual occassions, another requirement of Shehecheyanu is that it is only recited in conjuntion with joyous events. Sefiras Ha-Omer, on the other hand, perforce contains elements of sadness since we can no longer offer the Omer or Minchah which,in the Torah's ideal description, mark the beiginning and end of the couting period. As the Ba'al Ha-Maor poignantly notes, "ein bo zecher ela le'agmas nafshenu u'lechurban batenu," this mitzvah painfully reminds us of the destruction of the Beis Ha-Mikdash. The sadness felt by this recognition is, therefore, incompatible with Shehecheyanu.

Rabbi Joseph B.Soloveitchik offered an alternate exlanation for this halachic anomaly. Aside from other necessary conditions, Shehecheyanu is only said when we reach a certain milstone, as the blessing explicitly notes,"v'higiyanu lezman ha-zeh."Whether it's Pesach or Shavuos or any of the other holidays, we recite Shehecheyanu to acknowledge the siginifcance of the occassion. R. Soloveitchik explains that Sefiras Ha-Omer is fundamentally different in that the essence of the mitzvah isn't the milstone of any given day, but rather, the anticipation of the next day, and the next day after that, and ultimatly, Shavuos and Kabbalas Ha-Torah. As such, despite its anual performance, Sefiras Ha-Omer does not require Shehecheyanu.

Upon further reflection it appears that these are not just two different answers but, in fact, reflect two opposite perspectives. The Ba'al Ha-Maor is focused on the past, with Sefiras Ha-Omer recalling painful history and what we have no longer. R. Soloveitchik, on the other hand, is focused on the future, with the daily counting leading to growing anticipation and excitement.

Moreover, these two perspectives don't just relate to this specific issue of Shehecheyanu, but actually underly the whole mitzvah of Sefiras Ha-Omer.

What's the purppose of Sefirah - are we couting thenumber of days from Yetzias Mitzrayim or are we couting the days to Matan Torah; are we couting fromPesach or toShavuos? (See Rabbi Norman Lamm's Halachos Ve'Halichos for a discussion of these two perspectives.)

The answer is clearly both: We are looking both forward and back, we are focused on both the future and the past.

Without the eventual Matan Torah, leaving Egypt would have lost all of its spiritual meaning - for what purpose were we freed? - and without an awareness of where we were coming from - the depths of physical oppression and spiritual deprivation - we wouldn't have fully appreciated the significance of beeing chosen to recieve the Torah.

Sefiras Ha-Omer is the bridge from slavery to spirituality and the link between past and future. By couting day after day we are reminded of this vital connection.

And on a larger level, beyond the specifcs of any particular mitzvah or beracha, we are reminded that a Jew must always live with a dual time consciousness, aware of both where he is coming from and where he is headed to. Insufficient awareness of either of these perspectives will leave us incapable of appreciating past events or meeting future challenges. But if we internalize this lesson then, like the Jews of old, we too will be able to march through any desert, overcome any obstacle, and meet our destiny as a Mamleches Kohanim Ve'Goy Kadosh.


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Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by Ruth Peyser Kestenbaum and Miriam & Alan Goldberg to mark the ninth yahrtzeit of their father, Irwin Peyser, Harav Yisroel Chaim ben R' Dovid V' Fraidah Raizel Peyser and for a refuah shleimah for Getzel Avraham ben Yehudit