In Anxious Anticipation

“When you have led the people out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d on this mountain.”1 Recalling this Divine promise to Moshe Rabbeinu, from the moment of the Exodus, the Jews eagerly counted the days until they would reach Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah.2 Ever since, our people have counted these 49 days from the second day of Pesach until Shavuos, in fulfillment of the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer.

Liberation, an Expression of Divine Favor

The sequence of Pesach, Sefiras HaOmer, and Shavuos is much more than a commemoration of a certain segment of history. Each of the three events involved corresponds to a stage of spiritual development in the history of our people and in the life of each individual Jew.

Pesach marks the first stage. Before the Exodus, the Jewish people were enslaved, dominated body and soul by the Egyptians. In Yechezkel,3 their spiritual state before the Re­demption is described as “naked and bare.” They could never have been freed from slavery on the basis of their own merit; only through G‑d’s benevolence was the Exodus possible. He revealed Himself and redeemed them, despite the depths to which they had sunk.4

The fact that the redemption from Egypt did not result from the Jews’ own divine service affected the manner in which they responded to the freedom they had not earned. Though utterly unprepared for a hurried departure, they fled Egypt at the first opportunity. In Tanya,5 the Alter Rebbe notes that Pharaoh would have been compelled to grant the Jews freedom even if they had not fled. Why, then, did they flee?

Because the evil in the souls of the Israelites was still strong..., yet their aim and desire was to free their divine souls...from the defilement of Egypt and cling to G‑d.

The Jews had not earned their freedom through personal refinement. Fearful that the evil which still influenced them might gain full control of their thought processes, they fled.

Resolving an Inner Conflict

Most people are aware of the presence of both good and evil impulses within their hearts. Even an individual who feels inspired to fulfill G‑d’s will may be faced with a battle, for that part of his nature which opposes this wish will seek the gratification of his personal desires instead. As a result, he might come to believe that he must “flee from himself,” and suppress his identity in order to commit himself fully to G‑d.

The rejection of evil is, however, only a preliminary stage in our service of G‑d. Our ultimate goal should be to unite all the aspects of our personalities in serving Him, as it is writ­ten,6 “Love G‑d with all your heart (Bechol Levavecha).” Observing that the Hebrew word for “heart” is spelled here unusually, with a doubled consonant, our Sages7 interpret this to mean, “with both your hearts”: both the yetzer tov (“the good inclination”) and the yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”) should join forces in the desire to serve G‑d.

Systematic Growth

This level of service can be achieved only through a consistent, concerted effort. For this reason, a significant block of time, the seven weeks of Sefiras HaOmer, is dedicated to this endeavor.

Our striving for systematic spiritual growth during Sefiras HaOmer — a graduation from the animal level to the human level — is reflected in the Omer offering itself. Most of the meal offerings in the Beis HaMikdash consisted of wheat,8 which, as our Sages9 note, is primarily human food, while barley is primarily animal fodder. The Omer offering, which signifies the beginning of our process of development after our physical liberation on Pesach, consisted of barley; the of­fering of Two Loaves, which marks our spiritual maturation with the Giving of the Torah on Shavuos, consisted of wheat.10

The spiritual dimension of this contrast is clear. Man, un­like an instinct-driven animal, has the intellectual capacity to control his behavior. The Omer offering represents the be­ginning of the process of refining the animal aspects of man, the ultimate goal being to bring that part of ourselves which is dominated by self-centered concerns close to G‑d.11

The 49 days of Sefirah correspond to the 49 emotive at­tributes within the human character.12 Each day is related to the elevation of a different trait, as step by step, we refine our personalities.

This process of refinement allows us to resolve the con­flict between our good and evil impulses. On Pesach, our in­dividual identity and our spiritual goals may be separate from each other, or even in conflict. We might feel that in order to establish a bond with G‑d, we must deny our own identities. The spiritual labors of Sefirah, however, enable us to refine ourselves, allowing the integration of our divine service and our individual personalities, thus adding to the strength of our commitment to G‑d.

Internalizing Infinity

The counting of Sefirah concludes at the festival of Shavuos, but Shavuos is more than the culmination of Sefirah. The Counting of the Omer, which involves the refinement of the self, is limited by the framework of the individual. It re­lates only to the Divinity which can be perceived within man’s limits.

On Shavuos, by contrast, a level of Divinity which tran­scends all limitations is revealed. Our Sages13 teach that dur­ing the revelation at Mt. Sinai, “at each [Divine] utterance, the souls [of the Jewish people] took flight.” The revelation exceeded the capacity of their limited natures and brought about complete self-nullification.

In a similar fashion, within each individual’s service of G‑d in all subsequent generations, Shavuos takes us beyond the realm of our individual selves. As a result of the preparation undergone during Sefiras HaOmer, the transcendent revelation of Shavuos (in contrast to the revelations of Pesach) can be accepted by and integrated within the finite limits our individual personalities.

The potential to internalize our spiritual development af­forded by Shavuos is reflected in the special offering brought on that day, the Two Loaves.14 As a rule, chametz (leaven) may not be offered as a sacrifice.15 On Pesach, fur­thermore, all traces of chametz, the symbol of bloated self-assertion, are forbidden.16 However, once the self has become refined and transformed through the service of Sefirah, not only is chametz permitted, it can even serve as a mitzvah.

“A Sanctuary in Microcosm”

On a personal level, the Pesach-Sefirah-Shavuos sequence teaches us that through our service of G‑d, we can establish a bond with the transcendent dimension of G‑dliness. In order to relate G‑dliness to our daily experience, the personal re­finement developed through the process of Sefiras HaOmer is necessary. This service directs a person toward refining him­self and seeking personal fulfillment. Afterwards, through the Torah’s influence, one can proceed to transform himself, his home, and his surrounding environment into a “sanctuary in microcosm,”17 a place where the Divine Presence is revealed.

And by revealing G‑dliness within the reality of our con­temporary experience, we prepare the world for the coming of the era when “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”18 May this era come speedily in our days.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, Parshas Emor