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Numbered Route

This week I’m cowardly avoiding the discrepancy between the Torah readings in Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora by discussing some aspects of this time of year, namely Sefirat HaOmer. This daily/weekly count dominates this Jewish season. This period has become associated with mourning because of the tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s 12,000 pairs of students, and, later, the progress of the Crusades through the Jewish communities of France and Germany. But, I believe that we must look beyond those disasters to focus on the original and core meaning of this count.

It’s clear from the two major Biblical sources for Sefirat HaOmer that these days are primarily a bridge connecting two momentous occasions. First, in Emor: From the day after the day of rest (Pesach) — that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving — you are to count seven full weeks, until the day after the seventh week; you are to count fifty days; and then you are to present a new grain offering to God (Vayikra 23:15-16). Then in Re’eh: You are to count seven weeks; you are to begin counting seven weeks from the time you first put your sickle to the standing grain. You are to observe the festival of Shavuot for the Lord your God with a voluntary offering, which you are to give in accordance with the degree to which the Lord your God has prospered you (Devarim 16:9-10).

We are counting the days and weeks to span the gap between the exodus from Egypt and the epiphany at Sinai. However, to what purpose? Obviously, there are many opinions on a topic as cool as this one, and I’ll share a few.

The most famous and straight forward approach is that these former slaves, our ancestors, had sunk to the forty-ninth gate of impurity (TUMA’A), and, therefore, needed these 49 days to achieve a level appropriate for receiving the Torah. This concept explains the Kabbalistic custom of reciting the seven levels of the seven SEPHIROT throughout the count. We aim to ascend anew every year.

Rav Ya’akov Mecklenburg explains that the very term SEFIRA means ‘purify’. The Torah has other words for ‘count’, LIFKOD and LIMNOT. The term SEFIRA implies purity and refinement from the gem stone SAPIR, which is considered pure in both SHMOT 24:10 (describing the throne of God) and Yechezkel 1:26 (in his vision of the heavenly precinct).

Rav Asher Meir of Yeshivat Har Etziyon introduces an important idea. The SEFIRA begins with the bringing of a barley offering. This is animal fodder, and, usually, unfit for Temple use. But this time period teaches us that, sometimes, we settle for what we have rather than to what we aspire. During this period, we move towards the ideal, which in this case means wheat flour and the perfect two loaves of Shavuot. It’s a reminder of the necessity for growth and progress, always.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB”M builds on this idea. He suggests: On the other hand, this period should be viewed not merely as a sort of transition and anticipation, devoid of any substance in the present. Rav Lichtenstein emphasizes that ‘it is not enough to long for something external…while we remain in the same place.’ He then concludes: The aspiration itself must change a person and impact his hopes and dreams and his very aspirations themselves! We aspire to improve and grow.

It is crucial that every year, every Jew sees their own personal growth as the issue of the Sefira. Rav Soloveitchik noted that we are always at a crossroads; there are always two roads diverging in a yellow wood. However, the Sefira process forces us to think about it. The Rav pointed out that, ‘At any position in which you find yourself counting, you have to be aware of two things: of the preceding position and of the following position.’ We are eternally looking for a better future based on building upon a national past. We always remain cognizant of the reality that when we count today’s number, it represents where we’re going based upon how we got here.

Rav Steinzaltz OB”M pointed out that the customs of the Sefira aren’t solely out of mourning. The inner purpose of these customs to diminish frivolity is to help us better focus on the preparations to be ready for KABBALAT HATORAH, our annual reacceptance of the Torah on Shavuot. It’s not about sadness; it’s about seriousness of purpose and focus. We annually require an anticipation for the great event, and that requires serious groundwork and development.

I hope these ideas will help us in our formatting a plan for these critical days of the Jewish calendar and of our individual lives. Good luck in the endeavor.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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