The Power of Counting

Rav Avishai Schreiber • 2008

What is the significance of counting the Omer? Insights from the Midrash and various Chasidic writings.

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This week, as we read the portion of the Parsha concerning the period of festivals, we come about a peculiar commandment to count the days of the Omer offering:

And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week [namely], the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.

We are commanded to count forty nine days from the bringing of the Omer and then celebrate the fiftieth day as a holiday and festival in itself. The exact date of this festival, the sixth of Sivan, is not mentioned anywhere, instead it is identified solely as the fiftieth day, the day at the end of the counting.

What is the significance of counting? Why these days?

The Midrash quotes Jeremiah 5:24 in search of a connection based on the similar phrases:

And they did not say in their heart, “Let us now fear the Lord our God, Who gives rain, the early rain and the latter rain in its time, the weeks of the laws of harvest He keeps for us”.

God “keeps” [protects] us from bad winds and rains, explains the Midrash, during the seven “weeks” counted between Pesach and Shavuot, because we keep the “laws” special to the time of harvest - the counting of the Omer.

These days are the season of harvest, when one goes out to reap the crops he has labored over for the past year. This period of time is characterized by a kind of anxiety over the fate of the crops, and the fear that there may be a last minute disaster (bad winds and rains) that may possibly destroy the crops.

These weeks can be compared to the pressured period before a wedding is held, when all plans and preparations are being made so that everything will eventually run smoothly - but even at the last minute there is always a fear that an unexpected and uncontrollable event will spoil the celebration.

Mei Hashiloach[1] explains that this is the main objective of the Mitzvah of counting - to deal with the fears and worries of losing the crops during this period. By counting, a Mitzvah is fulfilled and that is what acts as protection. The solution of counting is not just relief of anxiety by being immersed in anticipation, but also by being occupied with a positive action - the fulfillment of a commandment, which then acts as protection.

Rabbi Natan in his book Likutey Halachot has an interesting take on the function of counting the Omer.

Rabbi Natan explains that the counting itself acts as a means of preparation for the acceptance of the Torah. The action of counting each passing day forces us to stop our everyday race, stand still in our place and reflect on Torah.

Today, if to his voice you shall listen. (Psalms 95:7)

“Today” is the state of mind required in order to accept the Torah. One must achieve awareness that ‘today’ stands in and by itself; one must understand its uniqueness. Each day holds an inner essence special to that day. This stays true throughout all our lifetime, just as the “seven weeks” are analogous to a lifetime, and acceptance of the Torah is a never-ending process. However, In light of the Midrash and Mei Hashiloach, we can clearly see the significance of this specific period.

Rabbi Natan is dealing with the basic situation of Sefirat Haomer - counting raises our awareness to every passing day and the light that it contains; knowing that each day is important and should not to be disregarded. This sort of firm standing may serve to protect us from “bad winds and rains” that threaten us as we approach the days of the giving of the Torah as well as the reaping of the crops.

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[1] Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Linar, the Rebbe of Izbitze.

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