Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been following your discussion of the counting of the Omer and have a question. If the counting is in anticipation of the holiday of Shavuos and receiving the Torah at Sinai, why is the count going up: today is one day, today is two days, etc., rather than counting down like people do when they anticipate a seminal event in their lives, like two weeks left till my kids come to visit, 13 days, 12, etc.? Also, it’s not expressed like a counting where one would say, “today is the first day, the second day, etc.” Instead, we say “today is one day…two days…three days…” like days piling up — rather than “counting.” Since these questions trouble me every time I perform this mitzvah, I’d appreciate some explanation.
First of all, it’s amazing that you noticed these subtleties, and great that you’re troubled by them! That’s the way we get to the deeper meaning of all that we do, by noticing the difficulties, being brave enough to question them and seeking the answers. In that way we reveal the profound underpinnings of Torah and mitzvos, so keep it up!
We’ll try to encapsulate the profound inner meaning of Sefira, counting the Omer, in the short space we have here. We might need a couple of weeks to complete this!
Let’s answer this the Jewish way, with more questions! Why do we call this the “counting of the Omer,” the Omer being the offering brought on the second day of Pesach? If the point is to count toward Shavuos, it should be called “the counting of Shavuos” since that is the destination, not by the starting point. If one flies to Detroit from Dallas, it’s called the “Detroit flight,” the destination, not the “Dallas flight,” which is merely the starting point!
One of the great Kabbalistic sages explains the following profound idea, in a cryptic manner: “Omer” literally means sheaves, which one piles up to create a pile of wheat or hay. The Omer is brought from barley, in Hebrew called “se’orah,” which also hints to the phrase, “shiur Hashem,” or, “the finite, counted parts from G-d.” (Tzemach Tzedek, “Derech Mitzvosecha” on Omer, as explained by my colleague Rabbi Akiva Tatz)
The explanation of this cryptic statement is the following. We are put in a very finite, physical world and expected to connect to the infinite, to G-d Himself. How is that possible? The answer is, precisely through the very finite world itself. How so?
We all know that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the way G-d created the world. A musical note, played on its own, has no meaning. When notes are put together in the proper way, the very same notes which are meaningless on their own could play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in C minor, a truly sublime experience! The same applies to a random brush stroke on a canopy; the sum total, if put together properly, could paint the Mona Lisa, a masterpiece! This applies, as well, to random words put together as poetry or a song, and all of this world.
This also applies to one’s life; an older person is not merely a compilation of days, weeks and years, rather the sum total creates a persona of one whose life experiences make him or her a wise, unique individual. That’s why the Torah tells us to stand up out of respect to an elderly person.
In the spiritual realm as well, if we utilize our days to grow spiritually, through the physical acts ordained by the Torah to fulfill G-d’s will, day by day those finite parts are woven together to create a persona which far transcends the sum of its parts, producing a spiritual, transcendent being — one who is connected to the upper, spiritual realms even while living in this world.
Omer, “the sheaves,” or days which we “pile up” the “finite, counted parts of G-d,” is not merely counting; it is the launching point from which we add up days of preparation, all woven together in a tapestry which creates us as “Shavuos Jews,” worthy of accepting the Torah and connecting to the Divine.
Think about this and see how it answers your questions, and we will address it more next time.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of DATA (Dallas Area Torah Association).