Children are dreamers, living in a world of fantasy, where anything is possible. Just ask a child what he wants to be when he or she grows up and you’ll get the most fantastic and unrealistic response imaginable. “I’m going to be an astronaut fireman, so that I can save people on the moon.” They live within the infinite, the realm of endless possibility. However, as children grow up they begin to experience the struggle of reality, where their notions of the infinite becomes challenged. Imagine a child 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 accepting this comfortable realization, he is again bothered by his thoughts. “But how can the universe stop? What else could there be? It has to go on forever…” And so, this inner conversation continues, as the child grapples with the inner struggle of contemplating the infinite within one’s own 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 these finite dimensions? How do we relate to the abstract, to the infinite, to the spiritual? Let us approach this question through the lens of sefiras ha’omer, the counting of the omer.
Sefiras Ha’omer: Questions
We are commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos, a period known as sefiras ha’omer. At first glance, this can be understood on a very simple level: As we head towards Matan Torah, eagerly anticipating the acceptance of the Torah, we excitedly count down each day towards 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 sefiras ha’omer count that is markedly different: Rather than counting down towards our destination, we count up from our starting point! 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 count?
Furthermore, what does counting accomplish? Why does our counting result in Matan Torah? Why is it so catastrophic if you miss a single day of counting?
In truth, we are not counting towards Matan Torah, we are building towards it, one day at a time. We do not wait for Shavuos to come, we bring it ourselves, through the time and work we invest as we count the omer. If Shavuos and Matan Torah was a skyscraper, then each day of the omer would be a brick. Every day is another brick we place in our building, another day where we get to work on ourselves. The reason we can’t miss a single day of the omer is because every single day, every single brick, is essential. Matan Torah won’t come after the 49 days, it will come because of them, built by them. This is why we count up; we’re not counting down to Matan Torah, we’re building towards it, one day at a time.
This understanding of sefiras ha’omer 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 aseh she’hazman gramah- a time-bound mitzvah. How are we to understand this? Sefiras ha’omer, a counting of each specific day between Pesach and Shavuos, seems like the epitome of a time-bound mitzvah!
However, a deeper understanding of sefiras ha’omer allows us to understand 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 as well. During sefiras ha’omer, however, we are not tapping into a pre-existing time, we are creating time. When we count the omer, we do not tap into the reality of the omer, we create it. Time isn’t creating the omer, we are. This is why Shavuos is not assigned a date. It’s not tied down to a specific day, rather it is the fiftieth day that stems from the forty-nine days we have counted, not simply because it is the sixth day of Sivan. We bring it into existence. This is why Shavuos literally means “weeks” – which also shares the same root as shevah- seven, because it is the seven weeks that we count which creates this chag.
Why Don’t We Count the First Day of the Omer?
After developing an understanding of sefiras ha’omer in general, let us focus on a few specifics of the count itself. Why don’t we count the very first day of the omer, which occurs on the first day of Pesach? The Arizal, Ramchal, Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers explain as follows. Every process contains three stages. The first stage is the high, the inspiration, an experience of perfection and clarity. However, this first stage is fleeting and is followed immediately 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 than 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 the gift, an experience of infinite transcendence. This night was characterized by makkas bechoros, a plague which Hashem Himself performed, Yetzias Mitzrayim, and the mitzvos of korban Pesach and bris millah, mitzvos which 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 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. The Shavuos sacrifice is shnei ha’lechem, a sacrifice of bread, a food characterized by the Sages as human food. Before the counting of the omer, we were 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, something unreal, unearned. Counting represents building and the building process only begins on the second day of Pesach, once the gift has been lost.
Connecting to the Infinite
Just like the little boy 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 general goal in the back of our minds while we focus each day, each moment on placing this 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.