Judaism: Ohr Torah on the Parsha: Ba'Omer or La'Omer?
"You shall count for yourselves seven cycles of Sabbatical years, seven years, seven times; shall be for forty nine years…You shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all of its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee year for you, you shall return each human being to his ancestral heritage…; You shall not sow, you shall not reap its after-growth and you shall not gather even what was already set aside-the year shall be holy to you” (Leviticus 25: 8-13)
We are now in the period between the Festival of Matzot and the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot). It may be viewed as one long festival connected by the count of the Omer.
The majority of our decisors are strict about the counting of the days. One may only recite the blessing for making the count, if they keep a complete and accurate counting for all 49 days. Why? Ought not each day stand on its own, independent of whether or not we remembered the correct count on previous days?
Secondly, why does the Bible (Deut 16:10) and our liturgy refer to the concluding festival of this period as the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot)? Other festivals like the Festival of Matzot or the Festival of Sukkot, are named for a ritual which defines the festival, and not for the period leading up to the festival.
And thirdly, my teacher and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ztz”l would always repeat the count of the Omer in two versions: (for example), “today is the first day within the Omer (ba’Omer) followed by, “today is the first day towards the Omer (la’Omer). Why the repetition and what is the difference between the two versions?
In order to respond, we must note the striking parallel between the Torah’s description of the days leading up to the Festival of Shavuot and the years leading up to the Jubilee year.
“You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the Rest Day, from the day that you brought the Omer of the waving – seven Sabbath weeks, they shall be complete. On the morrow of the seventh week, you shall count fifty days, and you shall offer (on that fiftieth day) a new meal offering to the Lord…. From your dwelling places shall you bring bread that shall be waved, two loaves…leavened; first offerings to the Lord…. And you shall convoke on this self-same day (the fiftieth day) a Holy Convocation for yourselves; you shall do no laborious work…throughout all your habitations. “(Lev. 23:15-21)
When you compare this passage of the days leading up to Shavuot with the passage of years leading up to the Jubilee (in the introduction to this commentary), you see that in both instances, you must count seven times seven units, leading up to the fiftieth which is holy and on which work is forbidden. The Jubilee is clearly a year of redemption, in which the fundamental freedom of every human being is honored and all inhabitants return to their ancestral homes. I would therefore submit that the fiftieth day – Shavuot; paralleling the fiftieth year – the Jubilee – must likewise signal freedom and redemption.
Although we were freed from Egyptian slavery on Passover, we were not yet truly free and certainly not yet redeemed; we had merely been thrust out into an alien and arid desert without a homeland with our own agriculture to sustain ourselves and without borders to protect us. This is symbolized by matzah – incomplete bread (the staff of life) and by the Omer barley offering, the first of the grains to ripen in Israel and a food considered fit only for animals. We also had not yet received our constitution of responsible freedom, God’s Revelation of the Torah at Sinai. True freedom had to wait seven weeks, for the wheat grain to ripen and for the bread offering to be brought at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Israel. Only then could we be considered free, redeemed and holy.
History shows that for freedom to be properly exercised and administered it must be deserved, and won with hard work. Man, the complex animal, must turn himself into hu-man created in the image of the Divine. This requires time and intensive preparation. To move from the barley grain fit for animals to the bread meant for those but “little lower than God, crowned with glory and honor” (Psalms 8: 5) requires the hard work of repentance, the return to the spark of the Divine within each of us.
Hence these seven weeks of counting (sefirah) must be used for self-improvement to bring each of us closer to the sefirot-emanations (characteristics of the Divine). The preparation must be complete – because without it, freedom could lead to lawlessness and mass destruction (witness the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution!).
Omer is a minimum amount of grain, a “sheaf”, barley or wheat grain. By counting using the word “la’Omer” (towards the Omer), we express our goal of proper and deserved freedom. By contrast, using the expression; “ba’Omer“(within the Omer), we emphasize the process of the period of preparation. One must understand the importance of the goal (“la’Omer“) and properly utilize every single day of the period of preparation (“ba’Omer“). Ultimately, making each day count is crucial, this is the preparation which will define the quality of the goal and which gives the festival its name, Shavuot.