For the week ending 27 April 2013 / 16 Iyyar 5773

Omer: Counting up to Shavuot

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Yehuda

Dear Rabbi,

What is the connection between counting the Omer and working on ourselves and self-improvement? I imagine it has to do with getting ready for Shavuot, but I'm sure how that works. Thanks for any clarification you have on this.

Dear Yehuda,

According to the Zohar, as a result of exile and the spiritual impurity of ancient Egypt, the Jewish people sank to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. This was so much so, that if they had stayed there any longer, they would not have been deemed worthy of redemption at all. After the Exodus, during the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, they elevated themselves from each level of tumah to the corresponding level of tahara.

This is commemorated with the period of the counting of the Omer – Sefirat HaOmer – in preparation for the receiving of the Torah in purity on Shavuot.

The Torah refers to this with the verse: "u'Sefartem l'chem…sheva shavuot" – "count for yourselves seven weeks". The word "yourselves" seems unnecessary. Wouldn't it be enough to say "count seven weeks"? What's the meaning of the additional "l'chem"? Similarly, the verse states that these weeks are to be "temimot" – complete. This also seems superfluous. Isn't a week by definition 7 days, and therefore complete?

Obviously, the emphasis is on the idea that the counting is to be for us – for our benefit. But in what way?

The commentators explain that the answer to this lies in our understanding of "sefartem".

Of course, the simple meaning of sefira is count – this is the count-up in anticipation of Shavuot, the receiving of the Torah which is certainly in our collective benefit.

But many commentators refine our understanding about how this is to be done based on various other meanings of sefira: "Sefar" refers to an outlying area — we are to push ourselves in self-improvement to the limits of our ability. This meaning also implies "border" — we are to limit/control ourselves within the confines of the Torah and mitzvot. Yet another meaning is related to "sapir" or sapphire — we are to beautify, purify and polish ourselves in preparation of receiving the Torah.

Other commentaries add an additional understanding based on the kabbalistic idea of the sefirot. The basic idea is to use the meaning, light and energy of the sefirot to guide us in achieving all of the above: maximizing our potential within the framework of Torah and mitzvot in order to make ourselves as luminescent gems in the crown of G-d's glorious Coronation – which is Shavuot.

While it's beyond our scope to go into this last explanation in depth, generally, the seven lower sefirot are associated with 7 attributes or character traits. Thus each of the 7 weeks of the Omer corresponds to one of these 7 sefirot, where each week highlights the improvement of that (Omer-specific) attribute: week 1 – Chesed/lovingkindness; week 2 – Gevurah/self-control; week 3 – Tiferet/spirituality; week 4 – Netzach/consistency; week 5 – Hod/gratitude; week 6 - Yesod/sanctity; week 7 – Malchut/consolidation (of all of the above).

In truth, our work of self-improvement during the Omer is intended to be even more fine-tuned and specific. This is what's suggested by the Torah's referring to 7 complete, full or perfect weeks. Each week is to be complete through the perfection of its individual days. Thus, each week and sefira is subdivided into the 7 days of each week such that there are 49 permutations of sefirot corresponding to each of the 49 days of the Omer.

Also, in the special service of Sefirat HaOmer found in all siddurim [including Ashkenaz, and ArtScroll], this corresponds to the 7 verses of "la'menatzeach" (Psalm 67), often portrayed in the form of the 7-branched menorah, which has a total of 49 words; the central verse of "la'menatzeach" starting with "yismachu" corresponding to the central branch of the menorah, which itself has 49 letters (including vav's in "tishpot" and "mishor"); the seven lines of the "ana b'koach" prayer which have 7 words each for a total of 49 (including the phrases made by the first letters of the words in each line [which, by the way, form the 42 letter name of G-d]).

It is also customary to learn the ethical teachings of Pirkei Avot during this period of self-improvement in anticipation of Shavuot. This is in fulfillment of the dictum, "derech eretz kadma l'Torah" – "good character traits are a prerequisite for Torah". This particularly applies to the 48 ways of acquiring Torah enumerated in the 6th chapter where each of these ways corresponds to one of each of the 49 days, and the 49th day is a culmination, synthesis and review of all of them together in preparation for receiving the Torah!

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