How do we, as physical and limited 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.
Our Yearly Counting
We are commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos, a period known as S’firas HaOmer (VaYikra 23:15-16, D’varim 16:9). At first glance, this can be understood on a very simple level: As we approach Shavuos, we excitedly count down to Matan Torah, as we anticipate our acceptance of the Torah. This can be compared to a countdown towards a wedding, 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 remain 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 holidays do we count the days between them; 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 its accompanying 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 higher. 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 (See Tosafos, M’nachos 66a). If while building a staircase you miss one step, you simply cannot build the next step up. Each step 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 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.
This elucidation of S’firas HaOmer sheds light on the Ramban’s enigmatic approach to the counting of the Omer. He maintains that women are obligated to count the Omer because it is not a mitzvas asei she’ha’zman g’rama – a time-bound commandment. How are we to understand this? S’firas HaOmer, the counting of each specific day between Pesach and Shavuos, seems to be the epitome of a time-bound mitzvah!
However, a deeper understanding of S’firas HaOmer clarifies the Ramban’s opinion. In general, a time-bound mitzvah is an opportunity to tap into a certain power of time that exists at that moment. On Pesach, when we eat matzah, we tap into the power of freedom, a pre-existing reality. This same principle applies to all time-bound mitzvos. For S’firas HaOmer, however, we don’t tap into a pre-existing time; we create time. When we count the Omer, we do not tap into the reality of the Omer, we create it. Time does not create the Omer, we do. This is why there is no specific date mentioned for Shavuos in the Torah. Shavuos – and Matan Torah – are not tied to a specific day (the sixth of Sivan); it is the result of the 49 days that we count. The 50th day, the day of Shavuos and Matan Torah, emerges from the 49 days of counting. We bring it into existence. This is why the holiday of Shavuos literally means “weeks” – the seven weeks that we count create the holiday of Shavuos. (Shavuos also shares the same root as the word sheva – seven – reflecting the seven weeks that create the chag of Shavuos.)
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?
While we likely take it for granted that the Omer is 49 days long, 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. What is the meaning behind this?
Rebuilding the First Night
The Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers explain the deep meaning behind the 49-day process of S’firah based on a principle we have previously developed. 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 originally 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 the miracles of Makas B’choros (Plague of the Firstborn) – performed by Hashem Himself – and Y’tzias Mitzrayim, as well as the mitzvos of Korban Pesach (Passover sacrifice) and bris milah (circumcision), mitzvos that connected the Jewish people to a higher dimension of existence. However, immediately following this night was a complete fall from this exalted level of transcendence. The Jewish People faced 49 days in the dessert, 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 Omer is a sacrifice of barley, a food described by the Sages as animal fodder (P’sachim 3b). The Shavuos sacrifice is sh’tei ha’lechem, a sacrifice of bread made of wheat, a food characterized by Chazal as human food (Aruch HaShulchan 489:3). 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 a transcendent spiritual level, tapping into our true nature as tzelem Elokim, now worthy and ready to experience 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 what we earned after 49 days of building.
We don’t count the first night of Pesach, because this night is a gift of inspiration, intangible and unearned. We cannot pin a number down to it, as it is fleeting and elusive. 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 teenager in the introductory story, 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 overwhelming – if not impossible – 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 while we build towards our ultimate destination. 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.