- Counting What Counts:
On the eve of the first night of Pesach, as we munch on macaroons, we begin our annual countdown to Shavuot. Why do we start on Pesach? Why don’t we just begin to count one week before Matan Torah? The purpose of our redemption was for us to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai. According to Sefer Hachinuch we begin counting on Pesach as a manifestation of our eagerness and anticipation to receive the Torah. This must always be our starting point as observant Jews, remembering what our ultimate purpose is and living our lives in accordance. Many people view the Torah as a convenient guidebook that maintains order and ensures morality among people. This goes against the RaN’s opinion that freedom from Egyptian slavery was merely a means to an end; we were freed in order to keep the Torah and not the other way around.
During the time period between Pesach and Shavuot we emphasize the centrality of Torah in our religion. Additionally, we mourn the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the Brisker Rav, there is an explicit commandment in the Torah that forbids one to forget any of his Torah study. We mourn the lost potential for Torah, which Rabbi Akiva’s students would have passed on to future generations, were they to live. Torah is an essential part of who we are as Jews. The Maharal compares Torah with the Jewish People. Rav Hutner adds that just as the Jewish People were unified at Matan Torah; so too, the Torah was a complete entity at the time. Today we are dispersed among the nations; the Torah parallels us in that there are many opposing views on its interpretation, causing discrepancy.
- What Counts When You Count?
The purpose of counting in preparation for Matan Torah is similar today to what it was following Yetziat Mitzrayim, at which point Bnei Yisrael had regressed to the 49th level of impurity. In preparation for receiving the Torah they were required to return to a level of piety. For that they needed 49 days of preparation; each day they ascended by a level. Today too we are required to use this time for spiritual growth. The blessing we say when we count the omer is unique. For most of the blessings that we say, we can fulfill our obligation by hearing another person recite it. Here there is no שומע כעונה; to fulfill the mitzvah one must recite the appropriate blessing on his own. This signifies the importance of individual reflection required in preparation for Shavuot, the holiday in which we receive the Torah each year a new.
- How to Make Your Counting Count:
The quick answer; break it down. When anticipating an event, it is logical to count the amount of days left rather than the days passed. Contrary to what would be expected, we count “up” to Matan Torah. As mentioned above, this is a time for growth. By counting up we focus on what we have achieved and not on what is left to conquer. We are motivated to keep growing when we see our accomplishments and focus on the positive. What does the mitzvah of sfirat haomer entail? Is there a single obligation to count from start to finish, or are there 49 separate mitzvoth? The halachic ruling follows the majority opinion which maintains that every day is in fact its own mitzvah. (However, one who forgets a day omits the blessing to protect from possibly violating the prohibition of saying God’s name in vain.) We are rewarded for what we accomplish even when the big picture is not perfect. As Jews we should strive for perfection while realizing that we are being judged for the process, not the end result.
וספרתם לכם… שבע שבתות תמימות תהיינה
Usually when referring to a full amount the word שלם is used. Here, we find the word תמים instead. As with Noah, תמים describes the inner value of a person. By making this distinction, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg uncovers the underlying essence of these days. The purpose is not to merely “count” a quantitative amount. Rather, during these days our focus should be on improving the quality of our commitment to Torah and spiritual growth. Our ultimate goal is to fulfill the will of Hashem, as it says in Devarim 18,
תמים תהיה עם ה’ אלוקיך.
Adapted from Rav Mirsky’s Hegyonei Halacha.
This piece was first published in Connections Magazine.