“And from the day on which you bring the Omer offering—the day after the sabbath — you shall count off seven complete weeks” (Vayikra 23:15).
When my wife was a teacher at a non-Jewish charter school in Philadelphia, every time a Jewish holiday would come up and she would miss class, which in all honesty was pretty often, her non-Jewish students would say that they wished they were Jewish so they could miss all those school days too. And so in this week’s parsha we take a journey through all seven of those Biblical holidays and their unique mitzvot, starting with Shabbat, continuing with Pesach, and concluding with Sukkot.
And amidst all the holidays we meet a unique mitzvah known as Sefirat HaOmer, or the Counting of the Omer.
“And from the day on which you bring the Omer offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count seven complete weeks” (Vayikra 23:15).
The next passage explains more about the counting: “you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Vayikra 23:16).
We are told to count 49 days from the first Omer offering, and then on day 50 a new offering is brought, not one of barley, but one of wheat grain. Though the passages are somewhat cryptic here, day 50 is the holiday we know as Shavuot, which literally means “weeks,” which the Sages also call Yom Matan Torateinu, The Day of the Giving of the Torah.
But what is the significance of this mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of those 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot?
Though many commentators express a similar notion, I find the words of the Rambam in his work The Guide for the Perplexed quite eloquent:
“Shavuot is the time of the Giving of the Torah. In order to honor and elevate this day we count the days from the previous festival until it [arrives], like someone who is waiting for a loved one to arrive, who counts the days by the hours” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:43).
In other words, according to the Rambam, the counting expresses desire and longing for the Divine. Just as one who is separated from a loved one and is longing for the day when they will be reunited, so too the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer expresses the longing and desire that Am Yisrael had to meet God on Mt. Sinai.
But this longing does not only live in the past; it is a longing that is intended to grow inside all of us as well, as we approach the day of the receiving of the Torah anew.
The only problem is we’re not receiving the Torah this Shavuot. The Torah was given over 3,300 years ago. How is our desire and yearning supposed to build for an event that happened so long ago?
Before I answer that question, I want to ask another famous question connected to Sefirat HaOmer: why do we count up and not down? Anyone who’s looked forward to any significant day in their life knows that there is always a countdown to that special day. But the Torah insists that we count up starting at one and ending at 49. Why?
As far as I’m aware, there is only one event that we count up toward and not down to: a birth. As every parent knows, each week of the pregnancy brings with it new challenges, new experiences, but also a growing longing and desire for the parents-to-be to meet their new baby, climaxing on or around week 40 with the birth.
So as we count the Omer each day, we can long for a new Torah. The words of the text will be the same, but our relationship to them can be totally new. We can hope to read the Torah with fresh eyes, with childlike excitement, and with newfound wonder for the most precious gift that God has given us.
But how can we make the Torah new? On a practical level, when a couple is expecting a new baby, preparations are made months in advance. The crib is assembled, the stroller is prepared, the clothes and even the newborn diapers are all laid out and ready.
So to apply that to receiving the Torah anew, what preparations can we make now so that we will be truly ready to see the Torah with fresh eyes? Maybe it means buying a new book, or finding a new chavruta. Maybe it means seeking out a new class or renewing a connection to an old teacher or finding a new Torah podcast. Especially now, there are so many ways to bring not only more Torah into our lives, but new facets of Torah into our lives.
But maybe the most important part is to bring ourselves new to the Torah. We are not the same person we were last year, especially considering how the pandemic has so radically impacted all of us. We cannot bring last year’s self to the Torah. If we see ourselves as new on Shavuot, we can be open to reexamining texts that we’ve read before with an open mind and a fresh perspective.
True, this may lead to new questions, new challenges, and new frustrations with the text; but if we follow those questions, it can lead to a new and deeper relationship with the text, and with the Giver of the text as well. But only when we acknowledge that we are not the same person who we were last Shavuot can the text be new; only then can it offer us new perspectives on ourselves and our relationship to Hashem.
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