I know a guy who’s an alcoholic in recovery. He once told me a piece of his story that’s stuck with me nine years down the line.
He said, “I initially struggled with the fact that, as a nation, we left Egypt to receive the Torah. Passover is about being freed from servitude. But seven weeks later—we received the Torah. We had just run away from a life of rules and restrictions, and now we were welcoming rules and restrictions! It was like out of the frying pan and into the fire!
“But then I got it.
I remembered my first AA meeting. I’d reached bottom. I mean bottom! With nowhere to go and my life in ruins, I made it to a meeting.
It was out of the frying pan and into the fire
The first step states that we’re powerless over alcohol. I didn’t want to admit it, but I already knew it. That’s why I was there. But that truth felt like death. What was I going to do with the knowledge? Then the topic turned to the step the meeting was dealing with, number two. It states that a Higher Power can restore us to sanity. In that moment I knew there was hope, however distant. For me, it was G‑d or the bottle. Either booze would run my life, or I could turn it over to a Being who was greater than me and who could bring true healing into my life, if I could open myself to that Presence.
“And that’s how I related to the connection between Passover and Shavuot—the Exodus and the giving of the Torah. I’d known for some time already about being a slave to the bottle. And I knew that the concept of slavery applied to all our vices and desires.
“I can be a slave to the world. Or—I can allow my Creator into my life. At an even deeper level, I realized that my truest self is aligned with G‑d’s blueprint for creation. So when I give myself over to the divine will, I’m giving fullest expression to my deepest self. That’s freedom—even if it entails denying my body or ego the instant gratification it desires. That’s why we leave Egypt—servitude to others—and, less than two months later, give ourselves over to G‑d.”
That’s his story. The way he tied the two holidays together was visceral and visual. It gets to the core of what the interim days between the two holidays are. Passover and Shavuot are, respectively, the point of departure and the destination of a journey. The 49 days in between are the path we follow to reach the goal. The journey is comprised of seven full weeks, which the giving of the Torah comes to crown on the fiftieth. Each week offers us an opportunity to work on a different aspect of our being, as we cleanse and ready ourselves for divine revelation. Together they comprise the mitzvah of counting the Omer.
Passover and Shavuot are the point of departure and the destination of a journey
So I thought that for the next couple of weeks we’d go on the journey together, exploring the call of the hour.
But first, we need to get a hold on the manner of service in general.
The biblical verse that delineates the commandment reads as follows:
You shall count seven full weeks for yourselves, from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering. Count fifty days, until the day following the seventh week.
If we unstitch it, the first of these two verses is puzzling.
First off, why do we need to be told to “count for (ourselves)”? Is there another way to count? This phraseology is not a one-off deal. We find the expression “for yourselves” mentioned in relation to other commandments. There, however, it seems to make sense. For example, when the Torah tells us to take and shake the four species on the holiday of Sukkot, it says, “Take (the four species) for yourselves.” The implication here is that you actually have to own the fruits and plants you’re holding. Or, if you don’t own them, at least be given them as a gift. The meaning of “for yourselves,” then, is “from that which is yours.”
There’s another example. Sukkot lasts for seven days. The eighth day is a holiday unto itself. G‑d tells us, “The eighth day must be a gathering for you.” Here the explanation is that the seven days of Sukkot are dedicated to all mankind. We offer up 70 sacrifices over the course of the holiday, in correspondence with the 70 collective nations. Then comes Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day Gathering. This was a time for the Jewish people to engage in a more intimate experience with the Creator, in celebration not of the universal but of the personal. So, here the meaning of “for you” is “just for you.”
So, what does “for yourselves” imply with regard to the counting? Actually, there’s yet another verse which gives some insight. On the obligation to count the jubilee cycle of fifty years, the Torah instructs, “Count seven sabbatical years for yourself.” Noting the difference between the singular and plural pronouns with regard to counting the years of the jubilee and the weeks of Sefirat HaOmer respectively, the Talmud makes the following distinction: The jubilee years can be counted by one individual on behalf of all the people. But the weeks of the Omer must be counted by each one alone.
This, then, is the legal implication. Each of us has to stand in prayer each night for 49 consecutive nights, and articulate where we’re at in the journey.
Each of us has to articulate where we’re at in the journey
However, all levels of Torah are part of one totality. That means that the legal and the mystical must mesh. What is it about the counting of the Omer that we have to each do it alone?
A second thread in the reading is the wave offering. It was a sacrifice of roasted and ground barley that had to be lifted up and physically waved back and forth by the priest. Why was the lifting and waving necessary?
The next, and glaring, question is why we’re told to count from the day following Shabbat. The reference here is to Passover. It was from the night after the Exodus that we began counting in anticipation of the revelation at Sinai. We walked out from Egypt on a Thursday at noon. Obviously, then, the first-ever counting of the Omer happened on a Thursday night. Why, then, does the Torah use the word “Shabbat” rather than say, “Count from the night after Passover”?
And finally, what’s the import of “seven full weeks?” Either you count for six weeks and, say, one or two or six or however many days—or, if it’s six weeks and seven days, then you’re counting for seven weeks. How on earth could you have seven incomplete weeks?!
The answers lie in an understanding of the spiritual landscape of who we are. Each of us has a higher and lower self. We could even define them as a false and a true self. The former is animalistic, in the sense that it behaves according to instinct. Our animal lives are lived reactively. At this level we certainly have the components of mind and heart, but the animal mind is very limited. The animal within is primarily emotive, and what intellect it has serves merely to fulfill our passions and to justify our irrational egoistic beliefs.
The human self, by contrast, is primarily intellective. Emotions at this level are generated by thought. Holy thought is a kind of chiropractic adjustment for the soul: think right, feel right, do right follow each other in a domino effect. Here the heart serves the mind. It serves as a means of expression for our true identity.
With this in mind, we can now address the questions raised by the verse:
The deep purpose of counting the Omer is to shine up the soul in preparation for the revelation at Sinai. The Hebrew word for “count” reads usefartem. In Hebrew, the letters “f” and “p” are interchangeable. So safir, “count,” can be revocalized as sapir, which is related to the word “sapphire.” G‑d is telling us, “Make yourselves luminous. Become clear and glowing, like a sapphire stone.”
In actual terms, what that means is that we have to take our animal soul and refine it. We have to deal, week by week, with base emotions and impulses, elevating and transforming them for a higher purpose.
Holy thought is a chiropractic adjustment for the soul
This end goal is alluded to by the elevation of the barley offering. Whereas wheat is a food traditionally associated with human consumption, barley is a grain primarily associated with animals. The offering required that young ears of barley, still moist, be dried by fire, and then ground, and sifted thirteen times, before being lifted to G‑d as an offering.
Taking the barley as a visual metaphor for our animal souls, we’re being asked to take the juice of our desires and burn that into steam that drives our connection with the divine. We burn it through fire, through the challenging discipline of restraint and respect for boundaries. Then we grind it. In other words, we sublimate the ego. Still not done; next comes the service of repeatedly sifting through our being, eliminating impurities. And finally, we elevate our inner animal.
The goal of Judaism is not to reject any dimension of self. Whatever we’ve been given is meant to be used in the service of G‑d. Our most physical and base existence must proclaim that in truth there is no barrier between the highest and lowest realms of creation.
In order to do that, we have to inspire ourselves and allow our G‑dly essence to shine forth. It’s always there, but being enclothed within the body and dunked in a physical realm, this inner point fades. We lose access to it as we go about our lives. Sefirat HaOmer is a full seven weeks devoted to recalling to consciousness this innermost point.
This is the meaning of the word lachem, “for yourselves.” Our lachem, our true self, is this essential G‑dly soul. We’re given the mission of making it glow with awareness and clarity, so as to be able to tackle the grand task of elevating the animalistic self we live with on a day-to-day basis.
It’s a lofty, lovely-sounding goal. But how are we to do it?
The answer is Shabbat. In Hebrew the word Shabbat is etymologically related to the word lishbot, which means “to rest.” G‑d’s message is, “If you want to have a shot at elevating your baser nature, you’ll have to rest a little from worldly conduct.” In other words, if you’re enmeshed with public opinion, making money, gratifying your desires, and so on and so on, then you’ll have a tough time rising above it all. The way to transcend those limitations is to abstain, to take a rest from the obsessions and pursuits that distract us from the real purpose of our being here.
Then we’re guaranteed: If you do this, you’ll be whole. You’ll have “seven full weeks” under your belt, and be able to live life as it was intended. You won’t have to discard any aspect of your being. The animal will still be there, but having empowered your true self, you’ll be able to inspire and refine the more base aspects of who you are. You’ll be a fitting vessel to receive divine revelation, and you’ll discover that finally, you’re truly free.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring how that’s done, step by step. Until then, light and joy to you and yours.