Here are a few (paraphrased) statements for you to contrast:

Statement A: “The Jews in Egypt were on the 49th level of impurity.” (One step away from the very bottom, the 50th level of impurity.)1

Statement B: “The Jews were on the 49th level of holiness when they got the Torah.” (One step away from the very top, the 50th level of holiness.)2

Statement C: The 49 days of Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) help us traverse those 49 levels so that we will be ready accept the Torah. Each day of the Omer, we work to refine one character trait and go up a level, until 49 days later, we are ready to receive the Torah.3

Okay, now for some simple math.

The Jews started on level -49, and 49 days later they were at +49, the 49th level of holiness, right?

How far is -49 from 49?

I’ll give you some time. Okay, time’s up.

The correct answer is 98. The 49th level of holiness is 98 levels higher than the 49th level of impurity.

So it should have taken the Jews 98 days to get to the level of holiness required to be ready to accept the Torah. At the time of the Giving of the Torah, which was only 49 days from when they left Egypt, they should have been at level zero! How did they make it to +49 in only half the time?

The answer is, quite simply, they made it up two levels every day. How did they do that? Well, instead of destroying negative character traits and then rebuilding new, positive traits, which would be a two day process, they actually transformed the negative character traits themselves into positive ones—a one day process.

So what does that mean for me? How does all this math affect my life?

What it means is that we need to rework our understanding of negative character traits. Let’s take the trait of anger. Anger is really just passion that has not been channeled properly. How negative it is depends on the circumstances: what triggered it, and what actions does it cause you to take? Imagine getting indignant when an injustice is done in front of you, and standing up for the oppressed because of that emotional response. Doesn’t seem like such a terrible character trait now, does it?

The same is true of every character trait. There are no bad character traits. There are only badly channeled ones.

So, each day of the Omer, instead of trying to create entirely new emotions and traits, try to figure out where those emotions already exist. Then, re-channel them to where they are really supposed to go.

And, 49 days later, you will be ready to accept the Torah.

(Based on the Netivot Shalom, Parshat Emor.)