The town was surrounded by a ring of tall, dark, wooded hills. Heavy, dank clouds hovered over the narrow valley, permitting not a single ray of sunlight to pass through. The townsfolk were born, they lived—and they died—in the “vale of tears,” as the place was sometimes called. They had no notion that out there somewhere there were happy, sunlit places.

But, one spring day, a wondrous stranger wandered into the dark valley. Seeing their atrophied, joyless life, he told them about his homeland: a place of sunlight, of fresh air, of joy and song. Hardly anyone believed that there really was such a place.

One morning, just before daybreak, the stranger took them to the edge of the valley, and when the early morning breezes drove away the dark clouds, they saw far off in the distance, as if illuminated by a flash of lightning, a green-covered plateau on top of a distant mount bathed in the light of the rising sun.

“That is the land to which I will take you,” the wondrous man called out to the stunned people of the valley.

The sight of the sun and its rays instilled hope in the people, and they eagerly followed their leader.

The journey from the dark and dank valley was long and treacherous. There were bleak wastelands, sandy deserts, steep hills to climb. There was yet no sign of the wondrous mount which was their destination.

From time to time their leader would refresh their memories, recalling that glorious morning when they had seen the mount with their own eyes. On these occasions, they could “see” again the top of the mount bathed in sunlight. And the remembrance gave them the strength and faith to sustain them until that glorious day when they would actually stand at the foot of the mount.

The Cosmic Valley

This, say the chassidic masters, is the story of our daily lives: the constant struggle, the exhausting climb up the ladder of perfection, developing the raw material of our being; approaching, yet never quite achieving, wholeness. It is a ladder whose base is fixed in the dark valley of a world where G‑d hides His face, and whose uppermost rung stretches to the wellspring of light.

And yet, there are those rare moments of revelation. Moments in which the face of G‑d smiles through the haze, and we glimpse the promised land that is the culmination of our journey.

The story of our daily lives is the story of a journey made in darkness, the story of an ongoing struggle with the forces of nature within ourselves and outside ourselves. But without those flashes from Above—without the rays of light that drive away darkness if only for the briefest of moments—we could not survive the tortuous journey and reach our ultimate goal.

The Climb to Sinai

The prototype of this journey, the template of our sojourn in this world, is Sefirat HaOmer, the 49-day counting of the days from Passover to Shavuot.

For 210 years our ancestors lived in darkness. Enslaved by the Egyptians, the most debased society to ever dwell upon the face of the earth, the children of Israel inhabited a spiritual fog which shut off every vestige of manifest G‑dliness.

Then, one day, a wondrous stranger appeared in their midst. He spoke to them of an age-old promise, made by the G‑d of their fathers, that they would one day leave this sunless world. He spoke of a mountaintop upon which G‑d would show Himself to them, take them to Him as His chosen people, and grant them His Torah, the revelation of His wisdom and will. He spoke of a land, basking in the light of divine providence, in which they would fulfill their destiny as “a light unto the nations.”

But this seemed little more than a fantasy. The darkness of their world seemed impregnable. They had no idea what this place in the sun was like, much less how to get there.

Then, at the stroke of midnight on Passover eve, a breach opened up in the clouds of their exile, and they beheld the face of their Creator. On that night, “the Holy One, Blessed be He, revealed His very self to them and redeemed them.”

G‑d, of course, could have simply lifted them out of Egypt and brought them to Mount Sinai that very night. But He wanted it to be their journey, their achievement. So after that momentary vision, the face of G‑d receded.

Then began the arduous climb to Sinai. The Jews were out of Egypt, but Egypt was still deeply embedded within the Jews. For seven weeks they struggled to refine the seven traits of their souls, to cleanse them of the profanity of Egypt and make themselves worthy candidates for the divine choice.

This was something that they had to achieve on their own, in the darkness of their deficiencies and the coldness of their alienation. But it was that initial vision of the divine light that inspired, encouraged and drove them in their journey.

The Annual Count

Each year, on the first night of Passover, we commemorate the events of the night of the Exodus. Through the Seder observances, we re-experience the liberating vision which drives our annual emergence from our personal “Egypt” and our internal liberation “from slavery to freedom, from darkness to a great light.”

But the revelation of the Exodus is but a brief, momentary flash. On the following day we begin our 49-day trek to Sinai, reenacted each year with the Counting of the Omer. Beginning with the second night of Passover, we count the days traversed from the Exodus, chronicling the milestones and stations of our journey of self-refinement.

The 50th day is the festival of Shavuot, our annual re-experience of the giving of the Torah, when we once again stand at Sinai to receive G‑d’s communication of His wisdom and will and to be chosen as His very own “kingdom of priests and holy nation.”