Counting the omer can completely change our relationship with time. A seven-week journey of personal growth and character refinement, it offers us an escape hatch from a life of fleeting experiences into something transcendent and everlasting.
Identification numbers, phone numbers, credit card numbers. Passwords, calories, time, temperature, travel distance…
We live in a world of numbers. We count everything. In this week’s parsha, Emor, we are introduced to a mitzvah that that is fulfilled by counting. The requirement is to start counting from the second day of Pesach, and to count 49 days – seven weeks – up to Shavuot, which falls on Day 50. The mitzvah is very specific. We are instructed to count each day individually and to mention the count in terms of both days and weeks. What is the purpose of this mitzvah? How does we counting each day, one after the other, from Pesach to Shavuot impact on us?
Rav Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg explains that this process of counting day by day is for our own personal growth. Each day of counting is a progression of self examination, introspection and growth. If done right – each day we should emerge as better people. The verse which introduces the mitzvah actually hints to its meaning. “U’sefartem lachem”, it says, “And you shall count for you.” It is enough for the Torah to tell us to count. Why does it add these two superfluous words “for you.” Rav Mecklenberg says the clue to the meaning of these words is in another verse in the Torah. When G-d tells Abraham to bravely leave his home in Canaan and journey to the land of Israel, He tells him, “Lecha Lecha” – “Go for you.” (Genesis 12:1) G-d is making clear to Abraham that the journey is for him. It’s an opportunity for him to fulfil his own G-d-given destiny. Similarly, we count the omer for ourselves, to fulfil our own G-d given destiny – emerging after each and every count as better people.
But how do we do this? How does the simple act of counting make us better human beings? Rav Mecklenberg explains how the word, u’sefartem, “to count”, can also mean to assess or to probe, and that u’sefartem shares its root letters with the word, sapir, meaning “sapphire”. The omer count is about doing a deep assessment of ourselves, and in so doing polishing our flaws and rough edges to reveal the sparkling sapphire – our true, transcendent selves – that lie beneath.
The Torah instructs us to count 49 days- “seven complete weeks”. The Hebrew word commonly used for “complete” is shalem, yet the word used here is from the root tamim. Tamim means complete but it can also mean “pure” – alluding to the fact that the counting isn’t just about the physical completeness of a set of numbers, but the spiritual and moral completeness of a human being.
So now we understand the immense potential for personal development in each of these days. But where does this journey lead us? What are we anticipating? What is it that we are counting towards?
Shavuot – the 50th day – marks the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. By counting towards this milestone in our history we are expressing, says the Sefer HaChinuch, our deep longing for the Torah. Counting towards something expresses longing and anticipation. It is the acknowledgment that Torah was the very purpose of our liberation from slavery in Egypt, and indeed the very purpose of creation itself. This, explains the Sefer HaChinuch, is why we begin counting from the second day of Pesach – to connect these two foundational events in the birth of the Jewish People. The first day of Pesach is about fully celebrating the Exodus from our enslavement in Egypt. But from the very second day, we turn our attention to its ultimate goal – the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
So each day, is a day of personal introspection and growth — leading to the ultimate goal of receiving the Torah and all its riches. The Dubno Maggid unlocks a further understanding of why we count. He explains how the mitzvah goes to the heart of our relationship with time. We struggle with time. Days come and go. Weeks, months, even years, disappear as if they never happened. Yesterday and the day before disappears as if it never was. The Book of Psalms says, “For even a thousand years are in your eyes like yesterday that has already passed … in the morning it blossoms and is rejuvenated and by evening it is cut down and withers.” (psalm 90:4-6) Even a thousand years can feel like nothing once it has passed. And as we all look back on our lives the days, weeks, months and years seem as if they never were. How do we hold on to the time that has passed? In another verse the Book of Psalms puts it, “Man is like a breath, his days like a passing shadow.” (144:4) The Midrash comments that this passing shadow “is not like the shadow of a wall, nor the shadow of a tree, but the shadow of a bird as it flies”. (Midrash Vayechi) One moment it is the there, the next a fragile memory. During our limited stay on this earth how do we stop life slipping through our fingers? How do we hold on to it?
Counting the omer, the Dubno Magid explains, is that focus that allows us to hold onto time. If we live life purely for material physical pleasure, for personal immediate gratification — we are indeed locked in a losing battle with time. Every physical pleasure is gone and irretrievable the moment it is over. Our only hope is for the pleasures that lie in the future – and one day, those too will be behind us.
The counting of the omer reminds us that if we live life less concerned with our immediate desires and more attuned to doing good, living in accordance with a higher purpose, making the world a better place – the life defined by the Torah – then we are building something enduring, something that has the ability transcends time. We know that every good deed we do, every mitzvah we perform, is counted as an eternal merit that we not only carry with us in this world, but take with us to the next world. These mitzvah experiences are not lost with the passage of time. On the contrary, they build and accumulate, and become greater by the day. They become eternal and through them we become eternal.
Counting the omer embodies this idea of cumulative growth. Each day is a separate mitzvah. We say a separate blessing. And each day builds on the days which preceded it. The verse describes the count as “seven complete weeks” – each day builds on those that came before, until a week is formed; and then each week builds on the previous week. The process of counting the omer is to accumulate time. All the pieces need to be there. And they build into something greater than the sum of their parts.
Physical life is fleeting. It can be experienced in the moment, but only in that moment. Like the shadow of the bird flying overhead, it’s glimpsed, then it’s gone. The past doesn’t exist, the future has not yet been born, and we only have that tiny window in the present moment to hang onto. But the Torah with its mitzvot is our gateway to something more; something eternal that we can hold on to forever, and – step by step, mitzvah by mitzvah, day by day – transform into something completely transcendent.