We welcome everyone back from what we hope was a spiritually uplifting Yom Tov of Pesach. It was especially meaningful for me to hear how well our students were prepared to share divrei Torah and their Pesach knowledge at their family sedarim.
The Jewish people left Mitzrayim on Pesach, and 50 days later, on the holiday of Shavuos, received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Today, in revisiting the Sinai experience, we observe a special mitzvah called "counting the Omer," in which we count each of these days aloud, beginning on the second night of Yom Tov. These days are meaningful: we demonstrate our ability to take the message of Pesach to heart through counting the days until the culminating event, Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah on Shavuos. These days are meant as special days in which we can work on enhancing our Bain Adam Lachaveiro – personal interactions – and to increase our Torah study.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons offers an insight into the custom of counting the Omer. The following is an excerpt from his article, Make the Omer Count:
Counting in anticipation of an exciting event is quite understandable. At one time or another, we've all probably said something like, "Grandma's coming to visit in a week and a half," or "Only 17 more days til my birthday!" But there's one subtle difference: The usual method is to count down toward the big day, whereas in the case of the Omer, we count up ― from one to 50. Why the difference?
To understand, we first need to answer a more basic question: Why did God wait 50 days after the Jews left Egypt before giving the Torah? Why didn't He simply give it to them in Egypt, or immediately after their departure?
The answer is that the Jews were not yet spiritually equipped to receive the Torah. For over 200 years, they had been living in an Egyptian society known to be the world center for immorality and vice. Even without direct Jewish participation, these influences nonetheless permeated the air and seeped into their consciousness. The primary book of Kabbalah, "The Zohar," reports that in Egypt the Jews had slipped to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. (50 is the very lowest.) God could not give the Torah at this point. The Jews needed to grow up first, or else they would have squandered the opportunity.
The high-impact adventure of the Exodus ― 10 miraculous plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea ― launched the Jews into physical freedom. Yet the miracles of Egypt were only a jump-start to the spiritual possibilities that lay ahead. A one-time experience, as powerful as it is, does not permanently change anyone's emotional attitude. That is only possible through practice and adjustment over time.
I've witnessed a similar phenomenon at the Discovery Seminar, a dramatic presentation of the rational basis for Jewish belief. Many people leave the seminar with the astounding conviction that God exists and that He gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Yet without proper follow-up, the impact lasts but a few days. Real change occurs only through steady day-to-day growth and a commitment to a consistent program of contemplation and study.
Now we can understand why the 50 days of the Omer is counted in a forward progression. We begin the process at the 49th level of spiritual impurity, and every day we peel away another layer of gunk, to reveal the original, pure soul we each possess. That's why every step both reduces the negative number and increases the positive number ― the single step of peeling away a layer automatically reveals the corresponding positive side.
May we all use these days of Sefira as days of personal growth for us and for our families.
Rabbi Peretz Scheinerman