Counting to build character

The Omer Counting: Seven Weeks for Spiritual Self-Improvement

by Avraham Zuroff, Arutz Sheva

Iyar 2, 5769, 26 April 09

( An opportunity for spiritual self-improvement is available during the period between Passover and Shavuot (Pentecost). At this time, Jews around the world count the Omer, the measure of barley that is harvested in the spring and was brought to the Holy Temples as an offering on the second of Passover. The 49 days of counting, which began on the evening of the second day of Passover, continues until the day before the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost), when the Torah was given to the Jewish People.

The Torah (Lev. 12:15) commands, “You shall count for yourselves – from the day after the Shabbat, from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving – seven Shabbats, they shall be complete.” The phrase the “day after Shabbat” is interpreted as meaning the day after the first day of Passover, which is a Sabbath in the sense that specific acts of work are prohibited.

Each evening, Jews count both the days and weeks. According to the Sefer HaChinuch, the counting symbolizes the Jewish People’s renewed anticipation of receiving the Torah. Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov explains that each day that we progress on our ways of rectifying our character deficiencies, we should not look at the ultimate goal, for we might not be able to appreciate it. “Look behind you to the Omer, to your very first offering, and count from there so that you can measure your progress,” Rabbi Kitov writes.

Channeling One’s Animalistic Desires
The Omer offering of raw barley is what is typically fed to animals. On the other hand, the offering on Shavuot 50 days later of the lechem panim, two specially prepared loaves of bread is the food of humans. Rabbi Yeshaya Levi Horowitz, a 17th century scholar, has explained that the change in fare symbolizes the Children of Israel’s freedom from slavery, but unaware of a guidebook, the Torah, were akin to animals, driven by their animalistic impulses. However, on the 50th day, the Children of Israel became a Nation by receiving the Torah. The offering of refined flour, fit for human consumption, aptly describes a people led by a guidebook, with the ability to constructively channel their desires to a creative purpose in serving G-d through His Torah and Commandments.

The Sages have designated the seven-week sefirah period as an opportunity for correcting various deficiencies in character by stressing each week’s unique characteristic.

• Abraham represents acts of lovingkindness.
• Isaac represents character strength.
• Jacob represents glory.
• Moses represents the Torah’s eternal message.
• Aaron represents splendor.
• Joseph represents fundamental morality.
• King David represents sovereignty.

The Kabbalistic work, Zohar Chadash, explains that the Jews in Egypt sank to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. However, G-d, brought the Jews out from slavery and imbued in them 49 levels of spiritual purity. The Zohar Chadash observes that the Torah mentions the Exodus from Egypt 50 times, which hints to G-d’s acts of kindness towards the Jewish People.

Looking Forward by Taking Bite-Size Steps
“When we count the 49 days of the Omer from the second night of the festival, it reminds us that each day marks a step away from the defilement of Egypt and a step towards spititual purity. At the end of this period, the Children of Israel were worthy of receiving the Torah” (Zohar Chadash, according to The Book of Our Heritage by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov)

The last chapter of the Mishnaic work, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), describes 49 ways of spiritual refinement. Indeed, we sometimes are bogged down by a goal because it seems too far away from us. However, when we are able to isolate one aspect of our personal challenges into bite-sized components, the previously inedible animal fodder becomes easier to chew.

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