Sefirat Ha'omer -- Stages of Purification
הרב מרדכי גרינברג
The Torah says about sefirat ha'omer (Vayikra 23:15-17):
You shall count for yourselves -- from the morrow of the rest day ("hashabbat"), from the day when you bring the omer of the waving -- seven weeks ("shabbatot"), they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal offering to Hashem ... Two loaves ... they shall be baked leavened; first offerings to Hashem.
The mitzvah seems straightforward. On the 16th of Nisan we are to bring the omer, count fifty days, and then bring an offering of two loaves on Shavuot. (The omer permits eating the new grain throughout the land, and the two loaves permit offering the new grain in the Temple.) The count of fifty days is simply to know when to bring the two loaves. Nowadays, since we have no omer and no loaves, it would seem that the counting is irrelevant. Indeed, some Rishonim say that nowadays sefirat ha'omer is only "zecher lamikdash" (to commemorate the Temple). However, the Rambam writes that the mitzvah remains from the Torah even when the Temple does not exist. What is the point of counting now?
Furthermore, there are a number of strange points related to sefirat ha'omer:
The Torah says, "count for yourselves" -- it is a mitzvah to count each day. There are other mitzvot where the same language of counting is used, such as a woman who is a zava and must count seven clean days. Yet, we don't find that she must count verbally each day and make a blessing on the count. What is unique about sefirat ha'omer?
All the mitzvot of Pesach revolve around the dates of the 15th and 21st of Nisan. Why, here, is there a special date of "after the rest day," on the 16th?
What is meaning of "after the rest day?" Why is Pesach called here "Shabbat?" [Indeed, the Sadducees interpreted the word "Shabbat" literally, so that Shavuot always falls on Sun.] This usage repeats in the phrase, "seven complete weeks" -- "Shabbatot." Why is Shabbat singled out?
On the phrase "they shall be complete," the Midrash says, "When are they complete? When you do the will of G-d." What is the connection of this to sefirat ha'omer? Moreover, those who say the "ribono shel olam" after counting introduce a totally new aspect to sefirat ha'omer -- "to purify us from our impurities;" "to purify the souls of Israel from their filth." However, the Torah simply says to count in order to know when to bring the two loaves, so what is this all about?
Why is the omer brought from barley, whereas the two loaves are brought from wheat?
All these anomalies point to sefirat ha'omer as an example of a mitzvah that cannot be learned only on the simple basis of "p'shat" without the kabalistic perspective of the Zohar.
The Zohar on Parshat Emor writes that when Israel were in Egypt, they were like a woman in the days of her tumah, and when they left, their tumah ceased, like a woman whose blood ceased. However, a woman does not become pure with the cessation of her blood. First the blood has to stop, then she must count seven clean days during which she checks herself, and then she must immerse herself to become pure. So too, leaving Egypt was like the blood ceasing, then they counted seven shabbatot, and then were purified with Matan Torah.
We tend to idealize the Exodus from Egypt, but the truth is that the spiritual situation was very serious. We find in Yechezkel (20:8) that they refused to throw away their idols. Chazal comment that G-d said, "So long as they are worshipping idols -- they will not be redeemed." Chazal comment, "mishchu" (Shemot 12:21) -- draw your hands away from idols. Similarly, in Tehillim (78:10) it says that they did not observe brit mila. (The Beit Halevi discusses the meaning of this; perhaps they did circumcise, but stretched the skin out again. In any case, they tried to look like the Egyptians.) The Zohar writes that they were steeped in the 49th level of tumah. They had to leave quickly and couldn't wait, since otherwise they would have sunk to the 50th level and couldn't be redeemed anymore.
The problem was, how was it possible to raise them quickly to spiritual heights? They were going to be an "am segulah" (treasured nation), and G-d was about to fulfill His promise to Avraham. The Ibn Ezra (in the beginning of Parshat Beshalach) writes that they also had the mentality of slaves. Although there were many miracles in the course of Yetziat Mitzrayim, miracles don't change a person's essence. The Rambam writes that a religion based on miracles is not long lasting. Indeed, from the moment of the Exodus there were problems of emunah, as it says in Tehillim numerous times:
Again and again they tested G-d, and they set limits to the Holy One of Israel. They did not remember His hand, the day He redeemed them from the oppressor. (78:41-42)
Our fathers in Egypt did not contemplate Your wonders, they were not mindful of Your abundant kindness, and they rebelled by the sea, at the Sea of Reeds.(106:7)
How could G-d convert them into an "am segulah?"
G-d did this through passing through Egypt personally during the plague of the first-born, as we say in the Haggadah, "I will pass through the Land of Egypt -- I, and not an angel; I, and not an agent." Why was this necessary? Did G-d need to go personally into this place of tumah, where Moshe wouldn't even pray, just to kill the Egyptian first-born? Rather, there was a deeper purpose here. It was not just to kill the Egyptians, but to raise Israel -- for them to meet G-d in Egypt. We usually interpret the word "Pesach" as meaning to skip over the houses of Israel; to go from one Egyptian house to another. Rav Kook, however, in his drashot says that this is wrong. In Shir Hashirim it says, "The voice of my Beloved! Behold He comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills." It doesn't mean leaping "over" the mountains, but from one mountain to other, skipping over the valleys in between, like deer. So, too, G-d didn't skip over the houses of Israel. Just the opposite! He was in the Jews' houses, and skipped from the house of one Jew to another.
We also say in the Haggadah, "U'vemora gadol -- this is the Divine Revelation." Where is this hinted to in the word "mora," which means fear? Onkelos, however, interprets "mora" as "chezvana raba" -- "a great vision." On the one hand, there was fear for the Egyptians, on the other hand, there was a great vision for Israel. The whole point of that night was to take Israel out of their spiritual depths and raise them quickly. However, the world cannot remain forever in a state of Divine Revelation. The goal of creation is not that G-d give grant spirituality as a present -- this is what the Zohar calls "nahama dechisufa" (bread of embarrassment) -- but that man earn it himself. A person is embarrassed to always receive. On other hand, when a person is deeply immersed in sin, he cannot achieve spirituality without help.
In a similar vein, Chazal tell us that a baby is taught all of Torah in his mother's womb, but before he is born, an angel hits him on his mouth and makes him forget it. Why teach it to the baby in the first place, if the angel is going to make forget it all? G-d wants a person to know the entire Torah. This does not mean just intellectual knowledge, but to be a complete person. How does He accomplish this? G-d initially grants man an existence with a perfect, pure soul. However, if the baby were to go out to the world like this, life would be merely a puppet show, and the person would do good naturally. Therefore, the angel makes him forget his Torah. Yet, it is not as if the person never had this existence in the first place. The person still has it within him-- in potential, and now he must reach this level with his own efforts. The same is true on a national level. On the night of Yetziat Mitzrayim G-d connected with Israel, raising them immensely. Then the Shechina departed, and Israel returned to their normal low state. However, they now know what is good, and have the motivation and ability to reach it.
This is the difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov. On Shabbat we say, "mekadesh hashabbat" -- the sanctity of Shabbat is fixed by G-d. "See that Hashem has given you the Shabbat." (Shemot 16:29) Not so Yom Tov, when we say "mekadesh Yisrael vehazmanim." When the angels ask G-d when Yom Tov is, He says, "Go down and ask Israel." Yom Tov requires the sanctification of Israel, to determine the date of Rosh Chodesh. Thus, the Zohar refers to Yom Tov as "itaruta d'letata" (arousal from below), whereas Shabbat is "itaruta d'lemala" (arousal from above). However, on the first day of Pesach, Israel was bare of mitzvot, and G-d appeared from above to raise them -- so it is like Shabbat. Therefore, after this "Shabbat," they descended back to their state beforehand, and now have to return on their own to that high level that they now desire. Therefore, the Torah says, "count for yourselves -- from the morrow of the Shabbat," since this day is like Shabbat, and now Israel has to rise on its own.
The count of sefirat ha'omer has a dual aspect. It entails a "cheshbon hanefesh" (self-reflection) on the past, and also aspirations for the future. When we count, "Today is the 23rd day of the omer," we are saying that twenty-three days already passed, and there still remain another twenty-six. Just as there are forty-nine levels of tumah, so too, there are forty-nine levels of kedusha. The days of sefirat ha'omer are arranged according to the seven "sefirot" (chesed, gevura, tiferet, etc.) -- seven times seven. On each day we are to improve one of these "sefirot." Each person must ask himself, "What have I done so far, and what it still left to do?" The counting of sefirat ha'omer is like a woman counting the days passed and looking to reconnect with her husband. The day of Matan Torah is referred to in Shir Hashirim as "yom chatunato," the day of his wedding. Sefira is a look to past with an eye on the future.
Every year this Divine arousal repeats on Pesach. "It is a night of anticipation for Hashem to take them out of the land of Egypt, this was the night for Hashem; a protection for Bnei Yisrael for their generations." (Shemot 12:42) Every year, G-d comes down, and each Jewish person feels a spiritual rise. Even non-observant people observe something; they say the Haggadah or eat matzoh. Throughout the generations Jews sacrificed their lives for this mitzvah -- in the times of the Inquisition, in Communist Russia, they would bake matzoh. A Rav once mentioned congregants who ate non-kosher all year, but would not have chametz and buy new dishes for Pesach. There is a subconscious feeling of the Divine Presence in the soul. Afterwards, this Divine inspiration falls away, and we try to return to this level. Therefore, there is a difference between this count and that of a zava. She counts simply to know when to immerse. Sefirat ha'omer is not so; each day is of value. We must give significance to each day, and what is gone is lost. We must fix each day at its time.
There is a concept of "bitul berov" (annulment in a majority), or in sixty. The minority substance is rendered insignificant, as if it does not exist. However, a "davar shebeminyan" (something that each individual item is counted), such as eggs, is not nullified, since each egg is counted and sold individually. The fact that we count it shows that it is important and not nullified. If the Torah says to count the days of the omer, this shows that each day is of value and cannot be lost. The Zohar says that one who fixes the days of sefira is not judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, since the main time for self-improvement is during these days. We rose then to very high level and cannot afford to lose it! Therefore we count these fifty days until Matan Torah, when we return to the high spiritual level of that awesome midnight.
"Teach us to count our days, then we shall acquire a heart of wisdom." (Tehillim 90:12) A person who knows to count his days knows the value of each day, and utilizes them to learn and bring wisdom. On Pesach night we rose to a high level. Although we dropped afterwards, we now know the value of this spiritual level, and want to return to it. This is the meaning of the strange "harachaman" that some people say in bentching at the Seder: "May the Merciful One bring us to a day which is entirely good, to a day which is entirely long, to a day that the righteous sit with crowns on their heads." The inspiration of the Seder is like that of Olam Haba, and we wish that it will continue.
This is the idea of the korban ha'omer. When we dropped, we returned to the lowest level. The korban ha'omer is brought from barley -- animal food, since we returned to the level of an animal, which lacks speech, is not active, and has no "da'at" (wisdom). The Gemara says that a baby does not call "Mommy! Daddy!" until he eats wheat. The gematriya of wheat is twenty-two, like the number of letters in the aleph-bet. There is an opinion in Gemara Sanhedrin that the Etz Hada'at that Adam ate from was wheat. Wheat represents the high level of man, as opposed to barley, which is animal food. After Pesach we bring an omer of barley and then count to the wheat offering.
There is another difference between the omer and two loaves. The omer is matzoh, while the two loaves are leavened. Matzoh is a dough that is passive, pounded down and repressed, while the rising of the two loaves symbolizes self-expression and fulfillment. On Pesach a person is still like an animal, while on Shavuot he receives Divine guidance on how to act like a man.
This is also the reason for the unique date of the omer. On the first day of Pesach we are already raised to a high level. It is the day after, when we drop back down to spiritual depths, that we must bring barley and then count our way back up to the level of man.
Thus, nowadays there is no omer or loaves, but the idea sefirat ha'omer still applies -- the rectification of the forty-nine levels, and the internalization of the worth of each day.
The Kabala talks about four "worlds" (levels of creation) -- atzilut, bri'ah, yetzira, and asiya. We in are in the world of asiya, the material world. The soul originates from the abstract, spiritual world of atzilut, from under the Divine Throne, and then extends down to our world. We say in "Elokai neshama" that the soul itself is pure -- corresponding to its origin in the world of atzilut. We continue, "ata brata, ata yetzarta," corresponding to its descent to the worlds of bri'ah and yetzira. Finally, "ata nefachta bi" -- it is blown into the body. Normally, a person has no connection with the upper world of atzilut, because he is so steeped in "doing" his day-to-day affairs. When he enters Shabbat, and all his work is done, man has the ability to touch the upper end of his neshama in the world of atzilut. The "extra neshama" of Shabbat doesn't mean an additional soul, but the ability to touch the atzilut part of the soul, which he is not normally able to. After Shabbat, when man returns to his normal activities, "vayinafash" -- "Woe! The soul is lost."
As the Kuzari explains, on Shabbat a person gets the necessary resources to sustain him through the week. In the same way, on a national level, on Pesach the nation gets the necessary resources to sustain it through the year. However, this is on condition that during these seven weeks we are sustained from the upper neshama. In order to feel this elevation we need to undergo seven Shabbatot -- not forty-nine days, but seven experiences of the holy Shabbat. If the Shabbat is different, then the whole week is different, the forty-nine days are different, and the entire year is different.
This is the idea of the Zohar that one who fixes the days of sefira is not judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On the other hand, it says that the judgment of the wicked is from Pesach to Shavuot. These are days of judgment, but if we take advantage of them we can result in great gain. They are days of self-improvement. For this reason one cannot exempt another in the count of Sefirat Ha'omer (only in the bracha beforehand). It is a time for personal work, to assess what we did and what we still need to do.
The Sefarim further state that the fifty days of sefira correspond to the fifty Shabbatot of the year. Each day is an opportunity to make up for the corresponding Shabbat that we didn't properly take advantage of. The days of sefira span the time between Pesach, when G-d came down in Egypt, and Shavuot, when He again came down on Har Sinai. The difference between the two revelations is that the first was on His own initiative, whereas the second was because we wanted it.
This is also the meaning of the "ribono shel olam." The point of these day is to purify Israel, so that we will be able to return to that same level that we experienced on Pesach, and we look forward to the time when "the righteous sit with crowns on their heads."
"When are the [days] complete? When you do the will of G-d." This is the whole idea of sefira -- to be complete and not miss a single day. If even one day is missed, we lost out. That is why if a person misses a day he can no longer count with a bracha. This idea is especially important for Bnei Yeshiva, to appreciate the significance of the seven Shabbatot, and to utilize them wisely, because this is what gives impetus to the entire period!
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