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Isha Bekia

Emor – How do we make life count?

May 8, 2020 | Weekly Parsha


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.

ID numbers, phone numbers, credit card numbers. Dates of birth, six-digit passwords, calories burnt. Time, temperature, travel distance…

Friends – we live in a world of numbers. We count everything. Numbers are assigned to virtually every aspect of our lives. The administration of society is unthinkable without numbers, particularly as technology advances and life becomes increasingly complex.

In this week’s parsha, Emor, there is a numerical mitzvah – the law of counting the omer. 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 to count each day individually and to mention the count in terms of both days and weeks. What is the message here?

Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg explains that the omer count is a step-by-step process of personal growth – 49 days of intense self-examination and introspection, after which, hopefully, we emerge better, more refined human beings.

The verse which introduces the mitzvah actually hints to this idea. “U’sefartem lachem,” it says, “And you shall count for you.” Rav Mecklenberg highlights the seemingly superfluous phrase “for you”. He connects this to a similar phrasing in Genesis. In instructing Abraham to leave his home in Canaan and journey to the land of Israel, G-d tells Abraham, “Lecha lecha” – “Go for yourself.” (Genesis 12:1) The commentators explain this to mean that the journey itself is beneficial to Abraham, it’s an opportunity to fulfil his G-d-given destiny. Similarly, the omer count is not just about mechanically tallying up the days between Pesach and Shavuot; it’s an intensely personal journey of self-discovery and self-development.

Rav Mecklenberg points out how the word, u’sefartem, “to count”, can also mean to assess or to probe, and that u’sefartem shares root letters with the word sapir, meaning “sapphire”. The omer count is about doing a deep assessment of ourselves, and then polishing our flaws and rough edges to reveal the sparkling gem – our true, transcendent selves – hidden beneath.

It’s interesting, also, that the Torah instructs us to count “seven complete weeks”. The Hebrew word commonly used for “complete” is shalem, yet the word used here is tamimTamim 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.

What exactly are we counting towards? Where does this journey lead us? Shavuot – the 50th day – commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that we count towards something we are feverishly anticipating. Counting the omer is therefore the expression of our longing for the Torah. And it is an acknowledgment that Torah was the very purpose of our liberation from slavery in Egypt. 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 Egypt. But from the second day, we can start to turn our attention to the goal of that process – Torah.

The Dubna Maggid says the mitzvah of counting the omer 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. 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) Elsewhere in Psalms, it says: “Man is like a breath, his days like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144) 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”. During our limited stay on this earth, how do we stop life slipping through our fingers? How do we hold onto time as it flies away?

According to the Dubna Maggid, counting the omer can help us completely change our perspective on time. But it all depends on how we view life. If we live life on purely materialistic terms – pursuing physical pleasure and self-gratification – then we are indeed locked in a losing battle with time, because all the pleasures we’ve experienced in the past are gone and irretrievable, and our only hope is for the pleasures that lie in the future – and one day, those too will be behind us.

If, on the other hand, we live life less concerned with our immediate desires and our physical wants, and more attuned to doing good, living in accordance with a higher purpose, making the world a better place – the life circumscribed by the Torah – then we are building something enduring, something that 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 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. 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” – which is why, according to many opinions, if you miss a day, themitzvah is lost, and you no longer count with a blessing. 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 is our gateway to something more; something that we can hold onto, and – step by step, good deed by good deed, day by day – transform into something transcendent.

The mitzvah of counting the omer is a seven-week journey of personal growth and introspection to become a better, more refined, more elevated person. It is a path of spiritual and moral growth that connects Pesach to Shavuot, along which we ready ourselves for receiving the Torah – G-d’s blueprint for life, lending direction and guidance and purpose to our existence.

The Torah is the destination, the goal, and it calls us to greatness, beckoning us to raise ourselves to a higher plain of existence. To count up towards it, and as we do so, to carve out a slice of eternity.