Why we count the Omer

Dear Rabbi,
In our Haggadah which we used for our Seder this year, it says “On the second night of Passover, we begin counting the ‘omer’.” Can you give us some insight about what this means?
Sincerely, Mark

Dear Mark,
The Jewish people’s journey toward nationhood began on Passover. The Exodus redeemed them from physical slavery and subjugation, but they still lacked a national identity and purpose. This was conferred upon them only later — when the Jewish people heard the words of God at Mount Sinai. (Exodus Ch. 19-20). In those moments the newly formed nation obtained its spiritual identity and national calling through the Torah, and the redemption was complete.
This world-altering event, the revelation of the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai, took place on the seventh day of the Jewish month of Sivan, in the year 2448 (1313 BCE). Every year, the anniversary of that revelation is celebrated as the festival called Shavuot.
The Torah emphasizes the link between Passover and Shavuot, through the commandment of “Counting the Omer,” or Sefiras Ha’omer. We count the days and weeks from the second day of Passover until the festival of Shavuot. (We begin the counting only on the second night of Passover, not on the first, in order not to detract from the celebration and joy of the Exodus, with a reminder that the redemption was not yet complete. See Sefer Hachinuch mitzvah 306).
The phrase Sefiras Ha’omer, meaning “the counting of the Omer, is referring to the Omer offering of newly harvested barley that was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem on the 16th of Nissan, the second day of Passover. (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:10-14).
In contrast to the Passover offering of barley, the offering on Shavuot was bread made from wheat flour, (ibid 23:17). What is the significance of this change from barley to wheat?
The Sages explain that barley is often used as animal fodder, while wheat is predominantly for human consumption; bread is an exclusively human food. Thus, as we count from Passover to Shavuot, we also mark our spiritual progression from slavery to our material, animalistic passions, to the increasingly human realm of free will, intellect and attachment to God. Through the counting of 49 days, we count our elevation, day by day, into the realm of Torah life and our growth as a “mensch.” (See Gateways to Judaism, Becher, Ch.12).
The Kabbalists explain further that 49 days of counting, comprised of seven weeks of seven days, represents the epitome of the physical world. The number seven in Judaism represents physicality, such as seven days of the week, the seven musical tones, etc. The multiple of seven times seven is the epitome of that concept.
The Jews had sunk to 49 levels of impurity during their sojourn in Egypt. Egypt itself was at the level of 50, the point of no return. The Jews needed to leave immediately at that point, because to tarry any further endangered them to sinking to the point of no return. Hence, there was no time for the bread to rise, and they had matzo.
The rising of the bread, the chametz, represents the inclination to haughtiness and evil. By leaving with great alacrity to fulfill God’s command they stopped the “rising of the bread”, the inclination towards evil, in its tracks.
The following 49 days were devoted to growing and acquiring positive character traits, one by one, day by day. At day 49, the Jews had perfected themselves and freed themselves of the 49 levels of impurity, now ready to receive the Torah. On day 50, they entered the spiritual realm which transcends the physical, the square multiple of seven, into the realm which is diametrically opposed to the negative “50” of Egypt. This is the world of Sinai, of Torah, of the Almighty. This is the real purpose of our redemption on Passover; hence it begins with, and connects to, the Haggadah.

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