Funny, how the Torah can say the darndest things.
Here we are in our weekly Torah portion, Emor, reading how we take from the first reaping of the harvest at Passover time, bring it to the Tabernacle and wave the grain called Omer Then, the farmer offers a lamb and meal offering for a sacrifice.
Then comes the strange part.
And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. [Leviticus 23:15]
The Torah gives no reason for this counting. The leading commentator, Rashi, gives us the basic mechanics but no explanation.
So, we keep looking. Chaim Ibn Attar, known as the Or Hachayim, or the Light of Life, was born more than 300 years ago in Morocco and remains one of the most prominent commentators on the Torah. Having no sons, he learned Torah with his daughters every Friday night, the basis of his book.
Drawing on his knowledge of Talmud and Kabbalah, the Or Hachayim places in context the commandment to count 50 days. He calls this an act of purification, meant to prepare the Israelites to receive the Torah after leaving Egypt, one of the most morally depraved spots on the globe. G-d saw His people as a menstruant woman, who requires seven days until she can return to her husband. Had the people managed to remain pure in Egypt, they would have received the Torah immediately.
The counting, therefore, marks a process. Every day, we serve G-d, record it in our calendar and move up spiritually. The act might not seem a big deal — it is merely one sentence in the prayer book — but it might be comparable to sending somebody a reminder. The recipient appreciates the thought.
As the Or Hachayim prepared to arrive in the Land of Israel, Levi Yitzhak of Berditschev was born in 1740 in what is today Poland. Regarded as one of the masters of Hasidic thought, Levi Yitzhak took up where the Or Hachayim left off. In his book Kedushat Levi, Levi Yitzhak says the counting of the Omer marks an initiative of Israel. They have seen the miracles in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea — and now all they want is to serve the Creator. They don’t count down to Shevuot, when Israel received the Torah, rather they record the days since the exodus from Egypt.
“And they don’t remember at all to ask from G-d their needs and livelihood,” the Or Hachayim writes.
A countdown marks an expectation. They count down at NASA until a rocket is sent to space. There’s the countdown to holiday sales. But counting up usually marks appreciation.
“How is your family, George?”
“Great. I just celebrated my 50th wedding anniversary.”
You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord. [Leviticus 23:16]
Sometimes counting up raises uncomfortable questions. The State of Israel marked its 75th year awash in protests and hatred. Leading politicians warned of civil war; others called for a boycott of their own country.
In the latest edition of the Mizrachi movement, two articles appeared that spoke of how the Jewish nation imploded in its eighth decade. Seventy-three years after David became king, 10 of 12 tribes seceded and established a rival monarchy. Seventy-seven years after the Hasmoneans expelled the Greeks, Israel was plunged into civil war exploited by the Romans. A thread runs through history that explains today’s threat — the elite take the nation for granted and work only on promoting their interests. It’s little different than two eight-year-olds arguing over Leggo until one knocks down what has been built.
This is not surprising. The eighth decade has marked the end of even empires. The Soviet Union collapsed after 70 years. The United States fought the Civil War, the bloodiest in its history. Many countries — including our neighbors — exist only on paper, whether Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria.
But there is another way: And that is counting up to G-d. Our ambition is to unify the nation “under G-d, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” That’s the Pledge of Allegiance millions of kids say every day in the classrooms of America. The pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist, driven from the pulpit in Boston because he preached against capitalism. In the original text, the word “G-d” didn’t appear.
That didn’t sit well with many Americans. In 1954, at the height of the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower asked Congress to add the word “G-d.” By then, Bellamy was long dead; instead his daughter objected to the change.
But the word G-d makes all the difference. It imbues the sentence “Today, eight and twenty days, which is four weeks, to the Omer” with the hope that G-d will finally redeem us, lift us above the morass of baseless hatred and materialism. To make our meaning clear, we say the following sentence after the counting.
The Merciful One, may He return to us the service of the Temple to its place, speedily in our days. Amen, Selah!