Counting the Omer: Accentuate the positive

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

The 49-day period between Pesach and Shavuot is known as “the counting of the Omer.” This countdown — a mitzvah each day — is not simply a way of keeping track of time, but rather a purification process: We relive the spiritual process of the Children of Israel, working to steadily refine each of the seven main character attributes — which further multiply by seven — so as to arrive in perfect form on the day the Torah was received. (In fact, some prayer books list the trait corresponding to each day.) That’s also why the Hebrew word used for counting is from the same root as “to shine.”

Every essential quality has a negative aspect (what it negates) and a positive (the target state of being). Trust negates worry, confidence contrasts with fear, love seeks to prevent feelings of distance, and so forth. Removing the negative aspect is only the first step to cultivating the positive component, which is usually the main factor in personal spiritual growth. 

Metaphorically, if someone has a big garden and only works to remove weeds, it will not take care of the separate, more important, activities of the landscaping and planting that yield colorful flora. The same applies to one’s internal garden. The effort and techniques used to dispel fear, for example, only facilitate, yet are distinct from, those that awaken the courage to meet challenges. 

No work is not rest

This dual movement plays out each week in the mitzvah, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, to “remember the Shabbat day.” The negative part is refraining from certain “work.” The positive piece is reaching a sense of menucha, inner tranquility. In the scriptural passages relating to the creation, we find that G-d both “refrained from activity” and “rested.” 

As it applies to our commemoration, if someone isn’t performing labor on the Sabbath (as defined by Jewish law) are they automatically resting? Technically, yes! But on the deeper level, someone may fulfill the absence of work, yet — due to strong stress, pain or distraction — will be missing the positive element of “resting” called menucha. In other words, the negative aspect is unplugging from mundane tasks. The positive aspect is plugging in to the spiritual nature of the day. 

Positive and negative freedom (Pesach reflections)

The same idea can be found during certain holidays. The main theme of Pesach, which we just completed, is cheirut, freedom. The negative aspect of this quality is emerging from being a prisoner to some oppressive force (in this case, “we were once slaves in Egypt…”). The positive aspect is self-realization and fulfillment of one’s potential. Similarly, someone can technically be free, yet missing the inner liberation and not attuned to the soul — their Jewish identity. 

This redefines the focus on Pesach, a message often distorted or misunderstood in this generation. It is not simply that we should appreciate being in a relatively free society and the benefits we now enjoy. Rather, the positive aspect of feeling free is beyond any physical, psychological and emotional expression — it’s the ability to connect to the past and reveal deep treasures from within us. The result of this soul-freedom is the power to override all internal and external impediments to joy and getting to the core of life. 

This past Shabbat coincided with the peak of Pesach celebration, when the Jewish people reached complete freedom — until the Egyptians drowned, they were always at risk. The broader meaning of “splitting the Sea” is when, despite all your effort and progress, the gap between where you are now and where you want to be, seems impossible to bridge — yet G-d takes you there. That’s the period in the calendar that we just completed. 

What now?

This week, as we turn to the mitzvah of counting at the beginning of each night — the process of character refinement mentioned above — we harness all the energy gained from the freedom of Pesach to further grow through individual effort and arrive in the best position to relive the receiving of the Torah during Shavuot.

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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