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The Secret of the Omer

By: Rav Yonny Sack

In parashat Emor, the Torah instructs us regarding the mitzvah of counting the Omer.

Simply put, the mitzvah is to harvest the first barley produce the day after Pesach and bring it to the Beit HaMikdash to be ground, sifted, mixed with oil and spices and burnt on the altar as an offering. The amount that needed to be brought was one ‘omer’ worth, which is the measurement of around 5 pounds worth of fine barley flour. We are then to count the days and weeks for 7 full weeks up until Shavuot when another offering is brought, this time coming from wheat in the form of two loaves. This counting period (which we are currently in) is known as Sefirat HaOmer – the counting of the Omer.

One might be puzzled by the following questions: What is the reason for this mitzvah of counting and why is the counting named after the Omer which was just an offering done back on the first day? Additionally one may ask; why the barley offering after Pesach and then the switch to wheat for Shavuot?

Our Sages teach that the Jewish people in Egypt were on the brink of spiritual annihilation. They had reached the 49th level of impurity, steeped in idol worship and all but lost until Hashem in His loving kindness went down to that place of impurity and pulled us out. This is analogous to a King who wants very much to wed a certain young princess. The only problem is that this young woman is outside the city, trudging around in the rubbish dumps, filled with mud and dirt. The King’s servant offers to go in and retrieve the young ‘queen to be’ but the King refuses. He chooses to go in to the dumps himself to bring her out. So too Hashem’s great love for the Jewish People resulted in His going down to the most impure, spiritually polluted, toxic place in order to pull us out and bring us to Har Sinai to ‘marry’ Him in commitment to His Torah and mitzvot [1].

After leaving the physical slavery and proximity of Egypt, we still needed to leave behind the spiritual contamination. In direct parallel to the 49 levels of impurity that we had sunken to, we needed 49 days of work on ourselves to be spiritually ready for Har Sinai. The 7 weeks of the Omer counting are broken down into the 7 primary components of the heart, the 7 lower Sefirot in Kabbalistic terminology. These are the 7 primary [2] emotions and spiritual traits that exist in the world and are found within man. Perfecting oneself is, in a large part, the work of refining and fine tuning the array of these 7 components within man. Each week of the omer we are supposed to focus on a different one of these 7.

Why the barley? Traditionally, barley was always the food that animals were given to eat. Throughout the Mishnah and Gemara barley is spoken of as the coarse, unrefined animal feed while wheat is the food suited for human consumption. That being the case, it is strange that we would make such a big deal about an offering of animal feed flour!? However, the Omer offering was the beginning of a process, a process of shedding the shell of Mitzrayim, leaving behind the animalistic, lower impure self and rising slowly but surely, one day at a time, to the level of human again (Netivot Shalom in the name of the Beit Avraham of Slonim). This is part of the depth of meaning of the order; an omer of barley and then the 49 days of counting, growing and purifying and then being able to offer the wheat at Shavuot.   

In deeper Jewish writings the barrier of the ego, the desires, the animal side of man, is known as the ‘Yesh’ of the person. We were created "yesh mi'ayin", something from nothing. When we transcend beyond the "something" of our physical created lower selves, where the ego makes us think of ourselves as independent of G-d, we can access the realm of "ayin", the spiritual infinite Source of our existence. The more ‘yesh’ (ego), the more we block out the transcendent G-dly experience from our lives. In everyday terms, it is the lower selfish side which stops us from accessing the true pleasure of connection with others, our true self and Hashem. The work of spiritual growth is to nullify the ‘yesh’ and thus remove the barrier. As the holy Piasetzne Rebbe said, "it is the yeshut which holds back the transcendent spiritual experience from above". "Bitul haYesh", nullifying the ego, is thus the work of humbling oneself.

The gematria of the word ‘yesh’ and the word ‘Omer’ is identical at 310. Perhaps this is hinting to the fact that the barley offering, the animal within must be offered up, elevated and slowly worked on until we can reach the humility to stand and receive the Torah at Har Sinai, Shavuot time, 7 weeks after leaving Egypt. Perhaps this is why we refer to the count as the sefirat haOmer, ‘counting of the Omer’ - sefira also means to express, to unravel the story (Sipur) and also to shine (like the brilliant illuminating Even Sapir - sapphire ) - as we are slowly but surely, throughout this period, working to climb from animal into the human revealing , expressing and shining our true holy light.

Have a beautiful Shabbos.


 


[1] I heard this analogy in the name of Rav Yehoshua Shapira shlit”a.

[2] An depth discussion on the Sefirot pattern, the 7 lower sefirot and their relationship with the 3 higher sefirot can be found in English in the book “Inner Space” by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan Zt”l and in the downloadable online book “ Flames of faith” by Rabbi Zev Reichman ( can be downloaded from yutorah.org) for those interested in learning more. 

 

 

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