By Rav Menachem Weinberg
Ram in Machon Meir English Department
The Torah tells us to count the ‘Omer’ but enigmatically does not say why (see Vayikra 23:15-16.) From the offering of a measure of barley on Pesach until that of the ‘two loaves’ on Shavuot, we count up the days from the Exodus toward receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai (as Maimonides and Sefer Ha-chinuch explain,) but this agricultural and historical context is not enough.
Why must we explicitly also count the weeks (see TB Chagiga 17b,) and what moral message or spiritual insight does such a count engender? If we take a quick look at the three festivals, it seems that we pay homage to Hashem for every miracle performed for the newborn Jewish people – on Pesach we recount the miracles of the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea, on Shavuot the thunder and lightening at the giving of the Torah, and on Sukkot we remember our spiritual and/or physical shelter in the desert trek to the Land of Israel. There is one glaring omission which might be the key to understanding why we count the Omer.
The midrash connects our Omer to the miraculous Manna which fell as bread from heaven for the Israelites leaving Egypt.
Rabbi Berachiya said: God said to Moshe, tell the Jewish People: when I gave you the manna I would give each one of you an omer, as it is written (Shmot 16:16): an omer per person; and now that you give Me the omer, I only receive one omer from all of you together.
Not only that, but it is an omer of barley and not of wheat. Therefore Moshe warned the Jewish People and said: “bring the omer. ” It seems clear that the prohibition of chadash – not to eat from the new wheat until after bringing the omer – is meant to ensure that we first recognize Hashem’s magnanimity before we partake of our produce as our own.
Perhaps the 49 day count of the Omer is also meant to inculcate an appreciation of what Hashem gives us, each and every measure of sustenance. That’s why in the blessing before counting we stress that God ‘commanded us to count the Omer [measure]’ – not the days from the Exodus, nor to Sinai, but the measure of blessing itself that we still receive until today every day, even with the Temple offering a distant memory. Many of us ‘count our calories,’ paying attention to every addition to our diet ration, but the Torah is telling us not to forget to ‘count our blessings’ as well. Significantly, the Manna started and stopped falling for our ancestors in the desert in the exact period that we count Sefirah today.
The Talmud (Kiddushin 37b) tells us that the Manna stopped appearing on the day of the first Omer sacrifice in Israel, and the Chatam Sofer (YD II 233) deduces that the Manna started falling on none other than Lag Ba’omer. In addition, the Manna came in cycles of 7, one Omer portion for each day of the week, with a double portion falling on the sixth day for Shabbat (hence our custom of making ha-motzi on two challot.) This may explain why we count our place in the cycle of 7 weeks – to reinforce the Sefirah as commemoration of the miraculous Manna.
Another interesting feature of the Manna was that it did not occur in the Mishkan but fell ‘outside the camp,’ which required each and every Jew to go out and harvest their portion of this spiritual sustenance from the field.
The Omer offering too was a unique demonstration that holiness can be found in this world: There are ten levels of holiness: The Land of Israel is the holiest of all the lands. And what is its holiness? That the omer is brought from it, as well as the bikkurim and the two breads, which are not brought from any other land. (Mishna Kelim 1:6) Not only in the holy Temple, or even in the supernatural miracles of Egypt and Sinai, but the hand of God is prevalent in our everyday life. Our daily bread can be holy bread, in particular in the Land of Israel. So we are enjoined, specifically at the time of harvest, to count the ‘omer,’ each and every measure of blessing that we receive, to count our blessings, sanctify, and appreciate all that we have.
The Omer of Manna can be instructive even as we strive to improve ourselves in this 49-day period of appreciation. God extended His loving-kindness to the Jewish people even as they sinned against Him, and worshipped the Golden Calf.
Nachmanides claims that remembering this chessed may be one of the 613 commandments: “Remember how you angered Hashem your God in the desert (this refers to the sin of the Golden Calf),” … if it is a commandment for all time, to be aware of God’s kindness to us and his commitment to the covenant with our ancestors, and to express our gratitude and bless Him for everything…” (Ramban, additions to the Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzvah 7)
When appreciating the blessings we receive, we are struck by how extremely generous and selfless God’s giving is, as He is willing to ignore our many faults and sometimes ungrateful denial of His presence (and presents.) In Judaism’s mystical tradition this awareness is not left as merely a theological belief, but a call to us to try to emulate this ideal chessed in our lives. “Who is like you God:” this teaches us that God is a long suffering God, who bears insult to an extent that we cannot fathom…thus we learn that this is an attribute that a person must cultivate, meaning patience, and bearing insult, even to this extent, and yet not withhold his kindness from the receiver. (Tomer Devora Chapter 1) May we use this period of Sefirah to appreciate all that is good in our lives, count our blessings and thank Hashem, and learn to emulate Him by giving greater and higher measures of love and kindness.