Parshat Emor: Sefirat HaOmer as the Way Forward
If characters from just about any stage in history could see our lives today, they would likely conclude that we are living in a time of unprecedented freedom. For the most part, those of us in the Western world can work, travel, pray, speak, dress, and vote however we choose, regardless of religion, gender, ability, or belief.
However, modern times are also characterized by anxiety, confusion, and depression. It is not uncommon to feel completely lost when faced with endless options. If I make one choice, am I not inadvertently un-choosing everything else? Many people remain in a state of eternal paralysis, forced to stand still because they cannot figure out where to go.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach used to say, “Freedom without direction is just another form of slavery.” When understood correctly, these words can be deeply profound and liberating.
While we probably don’t realize it and definitely would rather not admit it, deep down, many of us prefer to be told what to do than forced to choose independently. Receiving clear instructions saves us from both the stress of the decision-making process and from being forced to take responsibility when something goes wrong. Perhaps what we truly yearn for is not freedom, but clear direction; guidance as we continue to move forward.
After their dramatic escape from slavery in Egypt, the Children of Israel needed to journey through the desert for 49 days before they were capable of gathering as a nation to experience Divine revelation. It was not enough to simply show up at the foot of the mountain. Throughout our wanderings, we were able to internalize our newfound freedom and rise to the challenges that would transform us into who we needed to be in order to merit the Torah.
The same principles exist in the world today: if we do not do the internal work required of us, the freedom we were granted on Pesach can become our slave driver. That is where Sefirat HaOmer comes in. On the surface, it is a very bizarre mitzvah; we are simply commanded to count each night from Pesach to Shavuot – nothing more and nothing less.
When we look forward to something special, we usually count down – like children impatiently counting the days until their birthday. During the period of Sefira, however, we count up – from 1 until 49. But as we look forward to the “then” — some milestone in our future – do we run the risk of losing sight of the “now” — of all of these precious moments that make up each passing day?
Sefira serves as a tool to help us hold on to our freedom as we continue our lives. We look honestly at where we are standing today, while our eyes look ahead toward where we want to go. It is not enough to simply escape the bad, we remind ourselves as we count each day, we must work to acquire the good.
We see this pattern playing out in our own daily lives time and time again. If I’ve managed to break a bad habit, why doesn’t my life look the way I want it to? I’ve stopped eating junk food, why don’t I feel healthy? I’ve gotten clean from a destructive addiction, why don’t I feel fulfilled? I’ve walked away from a toxic relationship, why aren’t I happy?
As impressive and important as the first step is, it is not enough to break us out of our slave mentality. We may be out of Egypt, but we are still wandering aimlessly.
“Hashem, don’t you see how hard I am trying?” we ask, desperate and discouraged.
“Yes, my dear,” Hashem responds, with loving frustration, “But don’t you see how much I want to give you? You deserve so much more than just emerging from the darkness. I am offering you Light.”
We are commanded to remember our exodus from Egypt each and every day because it reminds us how essential freedom is to our purpose in this world. It is the first step, the calling we need to hear each day. Only once we free ourselves from our enslavement to today’s idols – whether they be materialism, apathy, doubt, or whatever it is that is holding us back from living a truly exalted life – can we continue our journey to receive the Torah.
Rav Erez Moshe Doron teaches that liberation from mitzrayim — being freed from our own experiences of narrowness — is not the end in and of itself. We don’t want to live our lives at the exit from the tunnel, we want to step into the light, to live a meaningful Torah life. We only attain true freedom once we have taken those baby steps forward toward that which will bring us true joy, fulfillment, and goodness.
But how can we do this when we are constantly pulled back down by the challenges and nitty-gritty details of daily life?
Sefirat HaOmer is the bridge from physical to spiritual liberation. We all have tests to overcome on the path toward meaningful personal redemption. “This is the real deal! We made it!” we exclaimed when we left Egypt. But it didn’t take long for us to experience doubt. “Now what? Is this really it?”
In a commentary on the Exodus from Egypt, the Medrash tells us that the vast majority of our people assumed that once their bad habits were behind them, they were free. Many, however, were unable to stand strong against the tests that came their way. Four out of every five Jews chose to remain in Egypt, enjoying their status as freed slaves in a familiar land instead of following Moshe across the sea. They truly thought the work was done.
Whatever happened to these people, 80% of the biblical Children of Israel? Those who stayed behind disappeared from our nation. Those who chose life at the exit from the tunnel did not move forward. People without direction get left behind, with no past, present, or future.