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Counting the Omer - Preparation and Elevation

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein







Counting the Omer – Preparation and Elevation

Translated by Kaeren Fish


“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the festival, from the day when you bring the omer for waving, seven complete weeks shall there be.” (Vayikra 23)


We are currently in the middle of counting the Omer. Our first association with this period is one of mourning, but that is a minor aspect of historical development; this period was, and still is, primarily positive.


There are two aspects to this positive character. On the one hand, there is the connection between Pesach and Shavuot, a connection that existed at the time of the Exodus and continues to our own times. The Omer is a period of expectation, of longing to receive the Torah. The Exodus was only complete when the nation accepted of the Torah.


The Zohar draws a parallel between the counting of a woman who is nidda and the counting of the Omer. Just as the woman counts down the days of the separation from her beloved, and at the same time towards their anticipated intimacy, so it is for Am Yisrael during their counting: there is a mixture of longing and anticipation. This, then, is the first aspect of Sefirat Ha-omer as the transitional period between Pesach and Shavuot. We look back to Pesach, to see how we have progressed, and look forward towards the giving of the Torah, with a mixture of longing and eager anticipation.


On the other hand, this period should be viewed not merely as a sort of transition and anticipation, devoid of any substance in the present. Here there is a difference between this counting and that of the nidda. Can we say that the period of counting the Omer is merely a time of preparation and waiting? Is the whole point of it only to arouse desire and longing? Surely not. We know that the time of Sefirat Ha-omer, following the Exodus, involved purification from the abominations of Egypt, for the Torah could be given only when Bnei Yisrael achieved a state of purity.


Hence we may adapt the same lesson to our situation today. It is not enough to long for something external – no matter how important or lofty it may be – while one remains in the same place. The aspiration itself must change a person and impact his hopes and dreams and his very aspirations themselves! Out of the longing for the Torah, the present itself undergoes a change. This is not empty, unproductive hope; rather, it is a present which generates a future – and thus the future in turn affects the present and elevates it.


The closer a person brings himself to God, the more his perspective on the future changes; he perceives his goals in a more spiritual light. The closer a person draws to Torah during this period, the stronger his longing will be for Shavuot, and the festival will already assume a more spiritual character in his consciousness. A similar idea is to be found in the kabbalistic teaching that each day and each week of the counting of the Omer points to development in the world of the sefirot. This same spiritual system of development can be manifest amongst Am Yisrael, and in each and every individual, in accordance with his preparation and spiritual elevation.


We tend to view the month of Elul as a month of repentance and spiritual accounting, in preparation for Rosh ha-Shana and Yom Kippur. However, in a certain sense repentance should be associated with Sefirat Ha-omer too. Admittedly, it was on Yom Kippur that we received the Tablets for the second time, with an awe-inspiring ceremony of forgiveness accompanied by the constant memory of the sin. But do we really need sin and terrible failure to become serious and to prepare ourselves?


Perhaps our preparation could be even more fitting now, on this festive occasion, in a situation in which Am Yisrael is still pure and innocent. Perhaps it is specifically here that purification is most appropriate, as we prepare to elevate ourselves to achieve a more meaningful existence.


How, then, should this period look? It should be a time of strengthening ourselves and of anticipation; of collective as well as personal preparation, as during the Yamim Nora’im. It should be a time of spiritual strengthening as well as submission. May each of us, emerging from all of this, merit to elevate himself in Torah, service of God, and acts of kindness, with hope and anticipation of God’s kindness.