Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Counting Our Days: The Journey in Creating a Relationship with God


Whichever parsha you are reading this week, we are still in the middle of the Sefirat HaOmer; we are counting from Pesach to Shavuot.

Yes, there is a tragic overlay to this time, and we will discuss that in a different week, but this week I would like to discuss the Biblical mandate:

“וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת”
mentioned in Parshat Emor, the responsibility to count seven complete weeks from Passover to Shavuot. [Leviticus 23:15]

Now, the interesting thing is, there are many times in the Torah we speak about counting.

For example, in Parshat Behar, for those of us in Israel, we are told about counting years until we get to the Sabbatical year. [Leviticus 25:3-4]

Yet there is no mandate to make an explicit count: “This is the first year towards the Sabbatical year. This is the second year towards the Sabbatical year”, etc. Counting is simply a mental note.

Likewise, we do not count the days towards the eighth day of circumcision; rather, it is a mental note.

The only time in which it is not a mental note, but we need to expressly articulate it, is when we count from the march from Pesach to Shavuot. [Leviticus 23:16]

There is a very important message to that. You see, what counts in creating a relationship with God, which is what Shavuot is all about, is the journey, the responsibility for every single day to be meaningful and purposeful.

That is why if we want to really celebrate our relationship to God, it is not about any particular mitzvah. That is why Shavuot has no specific mitzvot, no Biblical commandments attached to it.

Contrary to popular belief, eating cheesecake on Shavuot and even learning all night are not a Biblical mandate.

There are no Biblical commandments connected to the holiday of Shavuot because Shavuot is a day in which we celebrate the journey of creating a relationship with God.

Yes, it is a specific day in the month of Sivan, but the Torah does not tell us that specific day, because the Torah wishes to accentuate that what counts in creating a relationship with God is not a particular mitzvah, but rather the journey that we are on in creating that relationship.

There is another interesting thing:

“וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת”
“And you should count” [Leviticus 23:15] – “from the day after Shabbat”, which could mean Sunday if translated literally.

In fact, the Talmud has a whole debate, between those who embraced the Oral Tradition – and translated the word “Shabbat” as it is in other places, namely, as the day after the first day of Passover – and those who did not embrace the Oral Tradition. [Talmud, Menachot 65-66]

Some would count from the Sunday of the spring; and some – as we count – is from the day after Pesach.

The idea that the Torah uses this amorphous language is to highlight that human initiative is what creates a relationship with God.

We even have to interpret this pasuk, which tells us how to march to Shavuot.

“וספרתם לכם”
“You shall count…”

“ממחרת השבת
“…from the day after Passover.”

It requires rabbinic interpretation, human initiative, to understand the verse.

The counting of the Omer, the responsibility for each of us to ask ourselves the most important question: How am I marching to a relationship with God? How am I finding a space for God in my life?

That is why the Kabbalists assigned a special Kabbalistic mnemonic to each of the counting days of the Omer: to remind us of that message, to look inside ourselves and to find a way for us to become closer to God.

So whether you will be reading Parshat Emor or Parshat Behar, we’re all counting the Omer, and the Omer, in its enunciation, asks each of us: Nu? What are we doing to find a place for God in our lives? How are we counting these days and making them meaningful?

If we just take a moment and ask ourselves the question, then we will make these days truly meaningful days.

That is why the festival of Shavuot is unencumbered by any particular mitzvah, reminding us that what celebrates our relationship to God it is the way we engage with all aspects of our lives.

Then we will truly be able to make sure that we have a meaningful and purposeful relationship with God, which will not only change the world, but also indeed help us improve ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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