Why Do We Count the Omer?
Rabbi Ezra Labaton ZS”L
Who ever thought that counting could be a religious activity and therefore part of our “spiritual vocabulary.” Yet here Torah teaches us that we must count from the second day of Pesah to the holiday of Shavuot – the holiday of weeks. We need to ask the question, why count? What purpose does it serve?
Hacham Ovadia Yoseph answers the question with a reference to Shemot 3:12. Here Bore Olam tells Moshe that after liberation the people shall serve the Almighty on this holy Mountain – Har Horev. He notes that the Hebrew of “to serve” – “taavdoon” – is written with an extra letter – NUN – the Hebrew equivalent of fifty. Thus Bore Olam hints that fifty days after the Exodus, the Jewish people shall serve Him, the liberator, on this mountain. Later, when the Israelites heard of this, they joyously waited with great anticipation and began counting, day by day. As a people, they yearned to experience this great moment of revelation at Har Sinai. Thus we count in commemoration of their counting. Certainly, Hacham Ovadia’s interpretation explains nicely and neatly the reason for counting.
Others explain the misva of counting more simply. Counting the Omer (a measurement of barley brought to the Mikdash) served to connect the holiday of Pesah with the holiday of Shavuot. This teaches us an important lesson. Liberation without revelation is an empty gesture. Freedom without a clearly defined program that gives meaning and significance to life is nonsensical. The Israelites needed to know what to do with this newly found freedom? What’s the purpose of the liberation? To what end should the freedom be used? The revelation at Har Sinai answered the question; they were to become “a Kingdom of priests and Holy nation”, to teach others the right way to approach the Almighty. They now had the obligation to bring his doctrines to others. After Har Sinai, with Torah in hand, the people of Israel had a definite program of what to do with their newly acquired freedom.
We, too, await Hag Shavuot with great anticipation to renew our commitment and to do our share in becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Each of us has a role. Now, we must discern the role and get on with the task.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveichick adds an interesting insight to this discussion. He teaches that the Jews leaving Egypt were possessed of a “slave mentality.” Having experienced Egyptian oppression for centuries, they saw themselves exclusively as slaves. Slavery became for them something more than a physical fact of servitude; it became a psychological condition.
As such, the slave has little “time awareness.” The passage of time is meaningless to the slave, since he has no goals for which to strive. His work is endless; whatever is not done today will be completed the next day, or the day after that. The slave becomes part of an endless cycle of never ending drudgery. His psychological perception of time is radically different than that of a free man, who is able to establish for himself goals and give himself a time frame in which to achieve those goals. There is dignity in the creative, constructive use of time. One who doesn’t appreciate the value of time lacks this dignity.
Rabbi Soloveichick continues to explain that “Kedushat Zeman” has to be part of the Jew’s mental awareness. For example, we count the days towards Shabbat culminating in a Shabbat celebration. We celebrate the holidays, which, as well, sensitizes us to the holiness of time. Note that the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people was about time–celebrating the holiday of Rosh Hodesh.
Rabbi Soloveichick concludes that before receiving the Torah, the Israelite slave had to become more sensitive to the value of time, to the passage of time. Hence, after the Exodus he is commanded to count the forty nine days from Pesah to Shavuot. In this context time takes on a new meaning. The counting of days leads to a very specific goal – Matan Torah.
Once the Israelite slave began to appreciate the concept of “Kedoshat Zeman,”he was able to begin to experience the dignity of freedom and its implications for the Jew to use his time constructively to achieve the Almighty’s goals. The counting of days between Pesah and Shavuot teaches us to appreciate the holiness of time and its value.