Count for Yourselves
"And you will count for yourselves from the morrow after the shabbat (the first day of Passover), from the day that you brought the omer as a wave-offering; seven complete weeks; including the day following the seventh week you will number fifty days; and you will present a new meal-offering unto HaShem."
While the children of Israel were still slaves in Egypt, and the battle between HaShem and Pharaoh was still in full force, they were given by G-d their first commandment: "'This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you." (Exodus 12:2) The responsibility thereby being handed the Israelite nation was much more than simply bearing witness to the appearance of the new moon. They were being handed the keys to time itself. They were being given the keys to their future.
Torah does not understand time as a calibration of physical motion, or expenditure of energy. Torah recognizes time as a source of spiritual potential. Given the keys to access that source, we can gain control over our destiny. Being able to tap into wellsprings of time, we can begin to make use of our G-d given freedom of choice between right and wrong. Every moment of every day is a point of infinite Divine light and every moment is distinct from the next. Therefore, to be fully alive to the reality of G-d, we must seek out every moment as a means for spiritual growth. The Hebrew calendar helps us in this endeavor by providing a map delineating the spiritual makeup intrinsic to every day of the year. We are presently in the midst of the counting of the omer. This forty nine day period, beginning on the second night of Passover and extending to the night preceding Shavuot, provides a path for the spiritual journey necessary as preparation for the receiving of the Torah, which we commemorate and strive to re-experience, on the festival of Shavuot.
The Divine service of the Holy Temple provides a metaphor for describing this journey: on the second day of the Passover festival (the first day of the omer), the priests make an offering at the altar of the new barley (omer) harvest. Barley is a course grain, one our sages describe as "fodder for livestock." Fifty days later, following the completion of the forty nine day period of the omer, on Shavuot the priests made a unique offering of bread baked from leavened wheat. Bread, the staff of life, is itself a symbol of man. Food fit for beasts has over a forty nine day period matured and become refined, rendered fit for human consumption. When the children of Israel left Egypt they were free men, but in terms of their spiritual makeup they were little more than cattle released from the pen. In order to become bnei adam - human beings - capable of receiving Torah, a great spiritual distance had to be traversed in the forty nine intervening days, which brings us back to the commandment concerning the new moon. By being given the means to map out their own spiritual growth, the children of Israel were able to make proper use of the time alloted them between the rushed exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Before partaking of bread, a Jew pronounces the blessing praising G-d, Who "has brought forth bread from the earth." This is a curious expression being that every loaf of bread we eat is the result of a long process which requires much human effort. It makes sense to bless G-d for "the fruit of the tree" before taking a bite out of an apple. After all, an apple ripens and is completely edible. But why do we employ such a blessing before eating bread? The answer takes us back to the loaves offered on Shavuot: by completing the process of spiritual growth set out before us on Passover, we are becoming the very people we were always intended to be, and as a result, have drawn closer to G-d. This process is reflected in the making of bread: as a result of our great effort the bread is brought forth from the earth, just as we were brought forth from Egypt, and perfected, just as we were perfected in preparation for receiving Torah. By voicing this in our blessing over bread, we make known our Divine relationship with G-d.
Join Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven on this week's TEMPLE TALK, as they discuss Sefirat HaOmer - the counting of the omer, the unique spiritual qualities of wisdom and healing contained in the present month of Iyar, and the spiritual ascent toward Mount Sinai, Shavuot, and the receiving of Torah.
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