Observations on Sefirat Ha'omer (the Counting of the Omer)

Those who knew the Torah the most and were closest to it, apparently understood it the least. That is one of the contradictions we have to live with.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz,

Rabbi Schertz
Rabbi Schertz
INN: J. Fogel

The Torah instructs us to begin counting seven complete weeks from the day following the first day of Passover.  (See Vayikra, 23:15.)The count begins on the 16th day of Nissan, from the day that the Omer offering was brought. There is a controversy among the commentaries whether the counting is directly connected to the Omer offering itself, or simply establishes the time framework in which it was done.

It is appropriate that the counting occurs after Jews celebrate their liberation from Egypt.  The purpose of the counting seems to be an act of anticipation and joy for the giving of the Torah on the festival of Shavuot which will occur on the fiftieth day after the start of the counting.  It is important that we understand the events which occurred on the way to receiving the Torah.

When the Jews left Egypt and their experience of slavery, there was a sense of great jubilation and hope. They were even able to carry with them the wealth of Egypt which the Egyptian populace handed over to them. The Torah tells us that when they left Egypt, Israel left with an outstretched arm to indicate a sense of triumph.  (Shemot 14:8.) Their ultimate destination was Mount Sinai where God would reveal to them the Torah, the guide for living which would last for eternity.

On the way to Sinai, however, several barriers were placed in their way. When they reached the shore of the Red Sea, they felt that they had fallen into a deadly trap.  In front of them was a body of water which was impossible to cross, and behind them Pharaoh and all of his army was in deadly pursuit. To escape this trap, another miracle was required.  The sea was parted and Israel crossed over on dry land. The Jews witnessed the corpses of the Egyptians tossed out from the sea on the opposite shore. Israel’s exaltation was spontaneous - they believed in God and his servant Moses and sang a hymn to God known as Shirat Hayam.

They continued on their journey to Mount Sinai and throughout that journey were constantly complaining about the lack of food, meat and water. When they reached the base of the mountain, the Talmud tells us that it was necessary for God to coerce them into accepting the Torah.  God placed the mountain over their heads and threatened to bury them if they did not accept the Torah. (Shabbos 88a.) God thus, doubted their sincerity and their love for him.

When they finally stood before God at Sinai to accept His revelation of the Ten Commandments, they became terrified and attempted to flee.  Moshe had to restrain them and bring them back.

As they rested at the base of the mountain, Moshe told them that he would ascend the mountain and be there for forty days. The people, however, miscalculated the timeframe, and when Moshe did not appear, they expressed a desire for many gods. (Shemot 32:a1 Rashi. Avodah Zara, 53b.) The people expressed that desire by forcing Aaron to make a deity for them and thus the incident of the Golden Calf occurred.

The Counting of the Omer is our attempt to rectify the initial process of receiving the Torah and that counting is based upon love and a great sense of anticipation. We express this anticipation by counting seven weeks.  Each day counted brings us closer to the revelation at Sinai.

To Jews, there is no greater gift than the Torah.  We mark time with a sense of love and joy that the great day is about to be realized.

It is ironic that barriers still exist which mar our sense of joy and our sense of anticipation which is the intention of counting the Omer.  During the time of counting, the Sefira, a great tragedy befell the Jewish people. Twelve thousand pairs of students of Rabbi Akiva died because they did not show respect to one another. (See Yevamot 62b.) There are different opinions as to what time during Sefira this tragedy occurred.  This was seen as a cataclysmic event because the students of Rabbi Akiva were spread out throughout the land of Israel and taught Torah to the people of Israel. It was feared that the Torah would be forgotten in Israel. As a result the period of Sefira has become one of mourning which is demonstrated by not cutting one’s hair and refraining from any joyful occurrence such as weddings and other happy occasions.  The sense of grief effectively erased the sense of joy which is the basis of counting the Omer.

The tragic death of Rabbi Akiva’s students during this period of time presents us with an immense irony.  Those who knew the Torah the most and were closest to it, apparently understood it the least. This is reminiscent of the Israelites who left Egypt and experienced the presence of God in the Exodus more than any other generation.  They even proclaimed after crossing the Red Sea, “this is my God and I will glorify Him.” This same generation, however, at the first opportunity, craved to worship other gods as was demonstrated at the incident of the golden calf.

These are contradictions which cannot be reconciled.  We nevertheless have to live with them and become aware of how readily they may be repeated.  This is the underlying principle of this important Mitzvah.