The period of the counting of the Omer is one of the more difficult sections of time to understand on the Jewish calendar. Let’s examine what it says about this time period in the Torah and see what we can unveil.
“And G-d said to Moshe, speak to the children of Israel and say to them when you will come to the land that I am giving you, and you will harvest its harvest and you will bring the Omer from the first of the harvest to the Kohen. And he will wave the Omer in front of G-d in order to bring favor to you, from the ‘morrow of the first day of the festival of Passover he shall wave it…1”
“And you shall count for yourselves from the ‘morrow of the first day of Passover from the day you bring the Omer seven weeks, complete they shall be. Until the ‘morrow of the end of the seventh week you shall count fifty days, and then you shall bring a new grain offering. From your dwellings you shall bring a waved bread offering, two breads it shall be…bake it as chametz and it is a bikurim offering to Hashem…2”
We see very clearly that there is an inherent connection between the festival of Passover which is when we bring the Omer grain offering and the festival at the end of the seven weeks of counting where we bring two bread offerings. There is obviously great significance to this connection as we will explore further on.
What is interesting is that nowhere in the Chumash does it make any direct mention of the fact that Shavuos, which is the festival that falls out on the fiftieth day of the counting of the Omer, is actually the festival of the giving of the Torah. The Torah refers to this festival in three different ways a festival of harvesting, a festival of weeks, and the day of congregation.
“And the festival of harvesting the first fruits of your labor which you have sewn in the field…3”
“And a festival of weeks you shall make for yourselves upon which you will offer the newly harvested wheat…4”
“And Hashem gave me two tablets of stone written with the finger of G-d and upon them were written all of these words that Hashem spoke with you on the day of the congregation5”
In other words, when the Torah mentions the “festival” of Shavuos it clearly only refers to it in terms of the agricultural cycle. In one place it is referred to as a festival of harvesting, and in another it is referred to as a festival of weeks upon which you will bring a unique bread offering. In an entirely different place, which is not dealing with the festivals or festive aspect of the day the Torah refers to that day as “the day of congregation”. Notwithstanding the fact that the sages instituted in our liturgy the idea that these two ideas of “harvest and new bread offerings” and “the day of the congregation” when the Torah was given blend together and complement one another, nevertheless the Chumash oddly enough makes no direct mention of it. It is clear that the Torah wants us to see the relationship between Passover and Shavuos as mainly agricultural. Whatever deeper levels of connection and significant there are to be found here must be viewed through that lens.
Many times we make the assumption that just because we live in a modern world, therefore the agricultural societies and the ideas and concepts of husbandry in general are ancient and lack in their significance. Aside from the fact that this still remains a falsity because if not for farmers and the agriculture industry of today we would all starve, the fact is that the ideas and concepts inherent in these forgotten societies and ways of living are still deeply relevant to us in this very modern digital world. Let’s take a look, for example, at the idea of human productivity. Human productivity is a universal and ageless concept. Although the venue of human productivity in our world has changed, the basic concepts and ideas associated with it have not. Human productivity is really nothing more than an expression of self definition. There are essentially two forms of productivity. The first form of productivity is done for the sake of self preservation and benefit. The other form is productivity for some higher purpose.
When Adam HaRishon was created in the Garden of Eden he was placed in an environment which simply did not require that he exert any of his human productivity within the first form we mentioned above. All of his material needs were taken care of. The simple fact is that all of Adam HaRishon’s productivity was meant to be focused at a higher purpose and it was meant to take place in a higher form, that being the spiritual realm. Essentially, everything that Adam did was supposed to be defined as Divine Service. He was meant to eat and sleep like everyone else but with the intention of having energy to serve Hashem. All of his productivity was meant to be focused at elevating himself spiritually and the world along with him in his pursuit of reaching closer and closer to Hashem. The verse says
“And Hashem Elokim took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.6”
However, the Ramban and the Orach Chaim Hakadosh point out immediately that from the way the Torah refers to the Garden of Eden and from what we know about it from tradition, it was perfect and fully developed and kept that way by G-d Himself. Therefore it wasn’t necessary for man to work the garden. The notion of “working and guarding” the Garden was for Adam Harishon an entirely different endeavor. Working the Garden refers to the doing of positive commandments, and guarding the Garden refers to refraining from negative commandments. In doing so Adam would be able to see in real time that both his own level of spirituality and also that of the Garden and the world at large would all be elevated and brought to completion.
The Torah also teaches us about Lavan who was actually the father of Rachel and Leah the two wives of Ya’akov Avinu. He was also a very productive individual. He had herds and great wealth. However we see from his parting words with Ya’akov Avinu that his intention in developing and working for all that he had was base and selfish. The verse says
“And Lavan answered and said to Ya’akov the daughters [your wives] are mine, the sons [your children] are mine, your flocks are mine, and everything that you see is mine7”
With Lavan we see a tremendous contrast from life in the Garden of Eden the way it was really meant to be. There is human productivity which utilizes body and soul but channels all of that potential in to a purpose that transcends the one doing it and connects him to a higher purpose. And there is human productivity which utilizes body and soul for nothing else other than the selfish egoistic preservation of the one doing it. Herein lays the fundamental challenge that is universal and ageless within human productivity. Where are you aligned? It doesn’t matter whether you work at a desk, in a factory, travel, learn in a yeshiva, keep house, or whatever else you do. You must face this challenge of why and for what purpose are you channeling all of your physical and spiritual energy into that pursuit.
Our sages focus our attention on this dichotomy during this process of counting the Omer. When the verse says by the offering of the two breads on Shavuos that it shall be a “mincha chadasha” – new grain, it refers to the fact that the grain used to make those breads should be from the new wheat of this harvest season. Until this point the use of this new wheat in the service of the grain offerings had been forbidden. The inference is that there has not been any grain offering until that point from the new harvest of the season. This is inherently difficult since we know that the Omer grain offering is harvested the night after Yom Tov Rishon of Passover and made into a grain offering which is offered the next morning in the Beis Hamikdash. From here we learn that the Omer offering is actually brought from barley, which traditionally served as animal food. In fact the Omer is the only grain offering of any kind that is ever brought from barley. The general rule is that all grain offerings must be brought entirely from wheat, which is human food.
Here we have now uncovered a very fundamental idea in understanding the Omer grain offering and the mitzvah of counting from that time until the festival of Shavuos. The bringing of the Omer grain offering initiates a process of change. The counting each day is to emphasize the steps of transformation happening during that process of change. The actual change is one of realigning the purpose and intention of all of our physical and spiritual expressions from being selfishly and inwardly focused to being focused towards a higher purpose that being the purpose for which the world and everything in it was created.
We know that Passover is the celebration of the Jewish people becoming a free nation and that the culmination of that achievement of freedom is to utilize it in the full acceptance of knowing and understanding the will of our Creator and serving Him through the Torah. This second stage is what we ascribe to the celebration of Shavuos. Although the Torah seems to be looking at Shavuos as a mere agricultural celebration meant to emphasize the appreciation we must have for the new fruits of our labor and productivity, really what the Torah is teaching is that the agricultural element is a portal to understanding all of human productivity. The counting of the Omer is meant to focus our attention on the fact that our intentions and our purpose in our productivity are presently selfish, animalistic, and skewed and need alignment with the higher purpose of creation. Shavuos, which is when the Torah was given is the guide and the in depth manual of how to access this purpose in the world. We as Jews, even during our simple agricultural cycles, which we go through like all other peoples and societies are simultaneously extrapolating from that process the tools for growth.
Interestingly enough in the cycle of time, we have to navigate our way through this growth process before we have accepted the Torah. One might ask that if we don’t have the Torah to guide us to what our intentions should be than how can we be expected to make this transition and grow the way we are meant to during the Omer? The answer is that there is a level of Torah wisdom that is available in the world which we can access with our faculties of reason. Our sages teach us that “Derech Eretz precedes Torah”. This means that without the dictates of Torah it is possible for a person to discover to a degree what is correct and proper and how he must live his life in a refined way. It is reasonable that a human being should act and behave in a refined manner and the basic definitions of this behavior are available to people who are being reasonable. It is within this realm that we can access many fundamental insights into ourselves, into our world, and into the areas where we need to grow. This sensitivity and refinement that we develop in ourselves now will be the catalyst to help us merit fully accepting and receiving the Torah, and thus gain unfathomably deeper insights into just how far we can go.
With this in mind we can understand why the rules of how to count include that we must actually verbally audit the counting and not suffice with mere thought. The uniqueness of man is that he is a speaking spirit. The essence of what makes us special is that we can bring intellect into the world through the use of speech. Since the point of the Omer sacrifice and the Counting of the Omer are to channel all of our energies to the purpose for which they were created, therefore we must use the power of speech and intellect to express that. We also are commanded to count both the days and the weeks, in our counting. That means that we have to not only count a unit each day but we also need to constantly tie those units together and connect them to the overall process of growth and transformation. We also understand why each individual must count for themselves. The verse says the following:
“And you will count for yourselves from the ‘morrow of the first day of the festival of Passover…”
From this we learn that every Jew is obligated to keep his own count. In this way the mitzvah of counting the Omer is distinct from other examples in the Torah where we have to count like the years of Shmittah and Yovel for example. There it is enough that the Beis Din keeps a count on behalf of the entire Jewish people. However, here by the Omer we understand that this couldn’t be the case. Each person is meant to identify the areas within themselves where they are misusing and misappropriating their own productivity. They must each find those aspects where they are acting selfishly and not focusing on the higher purpose for which the world was created. No one else can grow for you and realign the intention and purpose of your productivity. Therefore, no one else can count for you.
This counting should be consecutive and uninterrupted as the verse says: “…you shall count for seven weeks, complete they shall be”. We know that there are discussions as to whether each day is a separate mitzvah of counting which stands mutually exclusive from the other days or the entire forty nine days of counting in its entirety constitutes the mitzvah. The halacha is that one must count consecutively or he loses the ability to make a bracha in the subsequent days that follow. From the point of view in which we are presently looking at this mitzvah it seems as if there is a question as to how much value to give each step a person takes towards this realignment process we are talking about. One view is that growth is not something that can be done without consistency and continuity. Although there is a position that would say every bit counts and each step is significant it seems that the ideal we are striving for is to grow within a consistent and continuous framework. This will obviously require greater planning and discipline to make the most out of the opportunity of the Omer period.
So let’s focus on this unique opportunity to realign and prepare ourselves for greatness, and HAPPY COUNTING!