Children are dreamers; they live in a world of fantasy, where anything is possible. Just ask a group of children what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get some of the most fantastic, unrealistic responses imaginable. “I’m going to be an astronaut fireman, so that I can save people on the moon,” or “I’m going to become a great tzadik and learn how to speak every language so that I can teach Torah to everyone.” Children live within the infinite, the realm of endless possibility. However, as they grow up, they begin to experience the struggle of reality, where their notions of the infinite start being challenged. Imagine a young teenager lying on a grassy field, gazing into the nighttime sky. As he stares up into the stars, he thinks to himself, “Look at how enormous the universe is. The sky just expands endlessly. It must go on forever.” After sitting with that thought for a few moments, he becomes uncomfortable. “How can anything go on forever? Everything must stop eventually.” But after a few moments of ease, his thoughts intrude again. “But how can the universe stop? What exists on the other side, when the universe ends? It has to go on forever.” And this inner conversation continues, as he struggles to contemplate the infinite within his finite mind.
This child’s struggle is not a childish one; it is a challenge that confronts any finite being who tries to connect to the infinite. We are all faced with the question: How do we, as physical beings, transcend our finite dimensions? How do we relate to the abstract, to the infinite, to the spiritual? Let us approach this question through the lens of S’firas HaOmer, the counting of the Omer.
S’firas HaOmer: Our Yearly Counting
We are commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos, a period known as S’firas HaOmer. At first glance, this can be understood on a very simple level: As we head towards Matan Torah (the Giving of the Torah), eagerly anticipating our acceptance of the Torah, we excitedly count down to our expected destination. This can be compared to a countdown towards one’s wedding, or a vacation, or some other exciting event. However, there is a feature of the S’firas HaOmer count that is markedly different: Rather than counting down towards the destination, Shavuos, we count up from the starting point, Pesach. We don’t mark how many days we have left until Shavuos; we count how many days have elapsed since Pesach. What is the meaning behind this strange method of counting? And more generally, what is the purpose of counting in the first place? By no other chagim (holidays) do we count from one to another; we don’t count the days between Sukkos and Chanukah. Why then do we specifically count the days between Pesach and Shavuos?
Building, Not Counting
In truth, we are not counting down to Matan Torah; we are building towards it, ascending one day at a time. We do not wait for Shavuos to arrive; we actively bring it ourselves, through the time and effort we invest as we count the Omer. If Shavuos and Matan Torah is a skyscraper, each day of the Omer is a brick. Each day we place the next brick in our building; each day we build ourselves one step further. The extensive halachic emphasis on counting each and every day of the Omer highlights the fact that every single brick is essential, every single day is fundamental. If, when building a staircase, you miss one step, you can’t lay down the next step up. It requires a foundation to rest on. The same is true of counting the Omer: Each day builds upon the previous ones, ascending towards our ultimate destination. Matan Torah does not come after the passing of 49 days; it comes because of them, built by our effort and investment during S’firas HaOmer. This is why we count up; we are not counting down to Matan Torah; we are building up towards it, one day at a time.
Why Don’t We Count the First Day of the Omer?
After developing a general understanding of S’firas HaOmer, let us focus on a few specifics of the count itself. The 49 days of S’firas HaOmer parallels the 49-day process that the Jewish People went through upon leaving Egypt, before receiving the Torah. What is the meaning behind this process, and why is it specifically 49 days long? On this same topic of numbers, there are two additional questions. While we usually take for granted that there are 49 days in the Omer, the Torah explicitly commands us, “tisp’ru chamishim yom” – you shall count 50 days (VaYikra 23:16). Why then do we only count 49 days, omitting the 50th day completely? This seems to be in direct contradiction to the Torah’s command. Additionally, we seem to skip the first day of the counting, only beginning the count on the second day of Pesach, when the Omer offering itself was brought on the first day of Pesach. What is the meaning behind this?
The Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers explain the deep meaning behind the 49-day process of the S’firah as follows. Every process contains three stages. The first stage is the high, a spark of inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. However, this first stage is fleeting, and is immediately followed by a dramatic fall – a complete loss of everything experienced in the first stage. The second stage is a process of rebuilding what was first experienced – working and building towards perfection. There is then a third stage – a return to the original perfection of the first stage. However, this third stage is fundamentally different from the first. It is the same perfection, the same clarity, but this time it’s a perfection and clarity that you have earned. The first time it was given to you; now you have worked to build it for yourself.
The first night of Pesach was a gift, an experience of infinite transcendence. This night was characterized by Makas B’choros – a plague that Hashem Himself performed – Y’tzias Mitzrayim, and the mitzvos of korban Pesach and Bris Milah, mitzvos that connected the Jewish People to a higher dimension of existence. However, what followed was a complete fall from this exalted level of transcendence. The Jewish People faced 49 days in the desert, a place of spiritual emptiness. It was during these 49 days of counting, of building, that the Jewish People were able to rebuild and earn that initial transcendent gift. What resulted from those 49 days of building was Shavuos, Matan Torah, an experience of transcendence, of infinity, of the World to Come.
This is why the Korban HaOmer is a sacrifice of barley, a food described by the Sages as animal fodder. The Shavuos sacrifice is sh’tei ha’lechem, a sacrifice of bread, a food characterized by the Sages as human food. Prior to the process of S’firas HaOmer, we are on a low spiritual level, the level of animals. After spending the 49 days of the Omer counting and building ourselves, we rise to the transcendent spiritual level of tzelem Elokim, worthy of experiencing Matan Torah. Perhaps this is why there were two loaves of bread, one representing the original gift on the first night of Pesach, and the second representing that which we earned after 49 days of building.
We don’t count the first night of Pesach because this night is a gift of fleeting inspiration, something intangible and unearned. The counting of S’firas HaOmer is a process of building, and the building process only begins on the second day of Pesach, once the gift has been taken away; it is at this point that we must start the work of truly earning it.
Connecting to the Infinite
Just like the young teenager in the introduction, we all struggle to connect with the infinite, to see the spiritual within the physical, to find genuine meaning and purpose in an often turbulent and chaotic world. It can feel overbearing to build a skyscraper; the task is quite daunting. However, the key is to have the ultimate goal in the back of our minds while we focus on each individual day, trying our best to place each individual brick perfectly. Each day of the Omer is a new brick – a new part of our journey towards Matan Torah, towards the infinite, towards “marrying” Hashem. May we be inspired to create something magical as we build towards Matan Torah, one day at a time.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.