Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sefirat HaOmer: Counting Up to Mt. Sinai

The first evening after the Seder Night, the Torah presents us with the following mitzvah:

“And you should count for yourselves from the day after Passover, from the day that you will bring the barley offering (omer in Hebrew), count seven complete weeks, until after the seventh week, count fifty days” (Vayikra 23:15).

From this passage we learn two mitzvot: the first is the priestly obligation to bring a special barley offering in the Temple each evening beginning from the sixteenth of the month of Nissan for fifty consecutive days, until the holiday of Shavuot.

The second is a seemingly bizarre mitzvah, called Sefirat HaOmer, or the Counting of the Barley Offering. Every Jew is told to count each day that the barley offering is consumed on the Temple altar. Even though we have no Temple to offer sacrifices today, we still count at the end of the evening prayer service, along with a special blessing made in conjunction with the counting, till Shavuot fifty days later.

The meaning behind this mitzvah of counting is not revealed in the passage. One midrash (quoted in a respona of the Rashbah) explains it as follows:

“When Moses told the Nation of Israel that they were going to serve Hashem on Mount Sinai, the Nation responded, ‘Moses our Teacher, when is this going to happen?’ He answered them, ‘Fifty days from now.’ Afterwards, each person counted the days to himself (until the time of serving Hashem at Mount Sinai). Therefore, the Sages set as a custom that each Jew should count the fifty days for himself.”

The midrash illustrates the great longing that the Nation felt after being told of the opportunity to serve Hashem. There was a deep anticipation, almost an obsession, with Mount Sinai, so much so that every day their longing grew stronger and stronger.

As we count the omer each evening, we also can experience this sense of longing. The anticipation for our personal receiving of the Torah on Shavuot can inspire our daily rituals, and motivate new goals in personal and character growth. These days leading up to Shavuot are auspicious times for this type of work, and we should attempt to maximize them with focus and excitement.

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