Up For the Count
Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )
Exploring the deeper meaning behind counting the Omer.
One of the major topics covered by our Parsha is the description of all the holidays we celebrate throughout the year and the major mitzvot that are associated with them. One of these mitzvot centers around the Omer sacrifice, the offering of a measure of the new and still unripe barley crop on the second day of Passover.
"You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day, from the day when you bring the Omer wave-offering – seven weeks, they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to God." (Levicitus 23: 15-16)
These verses command us to count the days of the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, the day the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. We are presently in the midst of counting these days; it is appropriate to attempt to delve into their significance.
Nachmanides in his commentary on the Torah (Leviticus 23:36) compares Passover to Succot. He explains that although they are superficially different – Passover is a seven-day holiday whereas Succot contains eight days – the difference in the duration of the holidays vanishes on deeper analyses. The days of the Omer – the chunk of time that we count between Passover and Shavuot – should be regarded as days of Chol Hamoed that join the two holidays together, so that in reality, Shavuot is actually the eighth day of Passover making them both eight day holidays. We shall attempt to explore the connection between Passover and Succot and the significance of eight-day holidays in this essay.
WHAT'S IN A NAME
Let us begin with names. In the passage referred to, Nachmanides points to a phenomenon that supports his thesis regarding the link the between the Shavuot holiday and the eighth day of the Succoth Holiday. The Shavuot holiday is commonly referred to as Atzeret in rabbinic literature, and Atzeret is the Biblical name of the eighth day of Succot, Shmini Atzeret. It would appear that our Rabbis intended to highlight the connection between the holidays by borrowing the Torah name of the eighth day of Succot and applying it to Shavuot.
Now let's delve into meaning. The word Atzeret means, "to retain", in the sense of a vessel or container used to retain and preserve something poured into it. Nachmanides hints that the connection between the two holidays is buried in the meaning of the word Atzeret. The eighth day of Succot is the receptacle that holds the holiness of the previous seven days, and similarly Shavuot is termed the eighth day of Passover because it is the day that captures the holiness of the Passover holiday. Let us see if we can unravel some of these ideas.
On the most surface level the stated purpose of the days of the Omer is to establish a connection between two sacrifices:
"From the day when you bring the Omer of the waving ... From your dwelling places you shall bring bread that shall be waved, two loaves ... they shall be baked leavened." (Leviticus 23:15-17)
The Omer, brought on the second day of Passover, the first day of the Omer, is a sacrifice that is composed of barley, and is brought to the altar in an unleavened state, while the two loaves that are sacrificed on Shavuot, the 50th day of the Omer, are baked leavened, and are made of wheat. Indeed, these two loaves are the only leavened grains that are ever brought to the Altar in the Temple. All other grain offerings are strictly unleavened.
THE BARLEY SYMBOL
The Maharal comments on the symbolism of these two sacrifices (in his work Tiferet Israel Ch. 25):
Barley was a substance fed to animals in ancient times. The Sotah, the unfaithful wife, brought an offering of barley and the rabbis comment on the reason; she was guilty of performing an act appropriate to an animal, that is, that she gave in to her purely physical animal urges, therefore she is made to bring a sacrifice of barley, essentially animal fodder. (Talmud Sotah 15b) The Omer sacrifice symbolizes man on a physical uncultivated level, whereas the two loaves of Shavuot are of leavened wheat, which is people food, as the Torah considers man an eater of wheat bread. "Bread that sustains the heart of man" (Psalms 104: 15)
He goes on to explain the symbolism behind these sacrifices. The noun meaning animal in Hebrew is bahemah, which is a composite of two words ba mah, literally "within what." The Maharal explains that this name encapsulates the essence of being an animal; the spiritual difference between animals and people is the ability to develop potential. Animals are called 'within what' because they do not develop. God instills the entire potential inherent in animals at birth.
THE HUMAN POTENTIAL
To distinguish him from the animals, the generic name of man is adam, a noun that means earth or soil in Hebrew. Man is exactly like the earth; it is the earth that sustains all life, but its capacity to actualize this potential to feed the world requires work and effort. Left to itself, the earth just lies there totally inert, and supports nothing. In the same way, man is born with infinite potential, but the development of his human potential requires effort and work. If man is inert, he ends up less than an animal although his potential is infinitely greater.
When the Jewish people left Egypt, they were transported to an enormous spiritual level and experienced an act of Divine revelation. The Midrash tells us that in the context of the miracle of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds every maidservant enjoyed a vision of God that was more elevated than the vision of the prophet Ezekiel, who saw God sitting on his heavenly throne surrounded by His angels. (See Mechilta, Beshalach, 6.)
The reference to the maidservant is not personal according to the Maharal; it is descriptive of the quality of the spiritual level of the vision of God attained at the pinnacle of the Exodus. The maidservant symbolizes a person entirely lacking in intellectual sophistication, whereas the prophet is the ultimate symbol of the very pinnacle of intellectual development. (See Maimonides, Yesodei HaTorah, 5.)
The implication of describing the immense revelation experienced by Israel at the Exodus in terms of a maidservant was to convey the idea that this revelation was totally inspired by Divine intervention; it owed nothing at all to the development of the spiritual potential that is the mark of human beings. As such, this revelation was a 'bahema'-type experience. It was thrust into the Jewish consciousness in the same fashion that information is programmed into the minds of animals. The vision that Israel experienced was way beyond their own intellectual reach. The Omer sacrifice, which is brought to symbolize the attachment to the Divinity attained at the culmination of the Exodus is therefore a barley sacrifice because barley is animal food.
In contrast, the revelation that came later, at Mount Sinai, on Shavuot, when the Torah was given and received, is symbolized by the offering of leavened bread made of wheat, human food. Wheat bread is offered, because this experience was on the intellectual level of prophecy, based on having developed the potential of the human mind to attach itself to the world of the spirit through education and hard work.
LEARNING HOW TO LIVE WITH ESKIMOS
Let us attempt to develop this remarkable idea presented by the Maharal with the aid of a metaphor.
Suppose you are an English speaker and want to go live with a tribe of Eskimos who do not speak a word of English. Not only are you faced with a language barrier; your entire life experience is irrelevant in terms of teaching you how to survive in the frozen habitat of the Eskimo environment. If you were transplanted to Eskimo land as you are you would only be able to survive with massive help. Someone would have to teach you how to dress, how to get around, what to eat etc. Only after a long period of acclimatization as a helpless dependant would you internalize sufficient information to be able to survive on your own without help.
If, on the other hand, there was a school to go to that could teach you the Eskimo language, the conditions of the environment and the survival techniques you will need to manage there, you could amass enough information to be able to begin to live in the far north with the Eskimos without anyone's help.
The distance between our world and the world of the spirit is infinitely greater than the distance between our culture and that of the Eskimo. To connect to such a world using our own resources without proper preparation is obviously out of the question. The revelations of the Exodus that we commemorate with the Passover holiday obviously had to be Divinely inspired. God held our hand and used His knowledge and power to bring us up to the level of these experiences. On the basis of our own spiritual knowledge and development they were untenable and unsustainable.
To connect to the world of the spirit on your own power requires a lot of schooling and preparation. The days of the Omer symbolize the distance between Passover and Shavuot, between experiencing the Divine on an animalistic, barley level, and experiencing it on a human, leavened wheat bread level.
THE 49 DAYS
The theory of the Maharal also explains why there are 49 days in the Omer.
The Torah informs us that the world was created in seven days. According to the commentators seven days was not a random number. Each of the days stands for one of the Ten Sefirot (or "Ten Manifestations").
To fully explain what the Sefirot are would take volumes and is beyond my capacity anyway, but it is necessary to have the glimmer of an idea of what they are about in order to continue this discussion. Briefly then, God is Infinite. The creation of the world was simply one of His projects as far as we are aware. There is infinitely more to God than the creation of our universe could possibly reveal. The partial glimpse of character traits of God that we can obtain by studying creation is what we call the Ten Sefirot.
Within the Sefirot themselves there is a division between the bottom seven and the top three. The plan of creation is not directly visible in its outer trappings. We cannot directly see the rules by which it was created or the purpose that God had in mind in creating it. The natural world that we can see with our eyes which was created in seven days reveals God's works but not the deeper ideas and the planning that went into its creation. The invisible intellectual component of the universe is represented by the top three Sefirot, while God's works are represented by the bottom seven; the seven days in which God created the world are the outer manifestation of the bottom seven Sefirot.
People have distinct character traits that nevertheless blend smoothly together so that we encounter integrated human beings instead of organisms with a certain number of distinct traits. In the same way each day of creation blends with every other day to form the seamless flow of time. To accomplish this each day must contain within it a part of all the others; that is how we end up with a unit of seven times seven or 49. The unit of 49 always symbolizes the limit of the reach of natural time and the limits of nature in general.
Take for example the unit of 49 years of the Jubilee era, which exactly parallel the 49 days of the Omer. The Torah refers to the 50 years of the Jubilee period as "forever." Thus the maximum term of service of a Jewish slave, who elects to serve his master "forever" (Exodus 21:6) actually ends in the Jubilee year, when he goes free. This is also the maximum period of all transactions involving the sale of one's inheritance in the land of Israel. The sale until the Jubilee year is a sale until the end of natural time.
When you get beyond seven times seven, you reach the number 50. The number 50 is beyond the realm of multiples of seven and belongs to the series of eights, and represents the part of the universe that lies beyond what is directly visible in the natural world. As noted above, God created the world in seven days representative of the bottom seven of the Ten Sefirot. The eighth (counting from the bottom up) of the Ten Sefirot is known as binah, signifying "understanding". As we have explained the world of nature as God created it contains all the forces of life, but God's plan – His purpose, the blueprint and wisdom He consulted and employed in its creation – is absent from it. This intellectual dimension of creation is represented by the highest of the Ten Sefirot, and the first one of these that you encounter counting from the bottom is Sefira number eight, binah.
The Torah originates in this sphere. The Zohar tells us that "God looked in the Torah" and created the universe (Zohar, Truma,161b). The receiving of the Torah necessitated contact with a sphere of reality that is beyond the ordinary boundaries of creation. Man had to make contact with the level of reality symbolized by 50, the level of the plan of creation, the level that reveals God's wisdom and understanding.
Now that we have the Torah, we can attend the school of Eskimo culture of our parable; we can learn about the world of the fiftieth level while remaining within the 49 levels of ordinary reality. The Torah codifies the information that belongs to the three highest spheres; immersing ourselves in Torah supplies us with the ability to establish and maintain contact with the world of the purely Divine while standing on our own intellectual feet, without the need for extraordinary Divine assistance. Without Torah study we can only contact the eighth level of reality miraculously, held aloft by God's supporting hand.
The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, which are the 49 days of counting the Omer symbolize the painful climb out of the natural world of the seven days of creation to the spiritual peak of Mount Sinai, to the level of the eighth day, binah.
RETRACING THE ROUTE
At the parting of the sea, God raised us to this level of bina for a brief span of time by injecting us with spiritual power. That explains why this experience is described as belonging to an Israel comparable to a maidservant and that is why the spiritual bond that commemorates the experience involves the sacrifice of barley, an animal food. During the days of the Omer God slowly fed us information.
We got a taste of the commandments at Marah, we started eating the manna, drinking from Miriam's well, and began the process of climbing out of ordinary existence on our own intellectual steam. Finally, we were able to reach the pinnacle of binah and function sufficiently on that level to have our face-to-face meeting with God and receive the Torah.
Not only does the Torah consist of information addressed to the intellect, the passing of the Torah from God to Israel necessitated the establishment of a Covenantal relationship. It is impossible to enter into a Covenant with a party who cannot stand on his own feet. Revelation on the spiritual level of a maidservant does not enable the giving and receiving of Torah.
This point is really the heart of this essay. It is impossible to appreciate Judaism without understanding the symbolism of the Omer. Judaism positively distrusts all sorts of ecstatic religious experience. Torah observance is based on an intellectual approach to the world.
There is no special way to live a Torah life. You have to live it the same way as you live a secular life. Just as secular life is inundated with emotional experiences but rests on a bedrock of intellectual understanding so must Torah life have a firm intellectual foundation. If one does not have sufficient Torah knowledge to sustain his level of religious feeling, the feeling itself is either illusory or unsustainable. The Torah categorized the very intense and very genuine spiritual connection established with God at the Splitting of the Sea as an 'animal' experience only.
As there was no other way to establish contact, God in His infinite goodness provided us with such an experience, but only to get us started. We needed the experience of the Exodus to blast us out of the physical world. Having been blasted into orbit, we were then expected to strive to climb to the level of such an experience through our own effort and work.
NECESSITY OF TORAH
Having received the Torah, it is our duty to establish the experience of Sinai as a permanent part of our lives through the study of Torah. It is our responsibility to establish Eskimo schools and teach our children and ourselves the language and the environment of binah so that we can stand upright on our own feet in the manner of human beings and face God.
If we look at life in spiritual terms, we are led to the realization that our entire secular existence in this physical world takes place on the spiritual level of animate creatures. We wander about without any clear idea of why we are here, who if anyone, placed us here and for what purpose. We cannot exploit the human spiritual potential that is implanted within us without contacting the level of binah, and it is impossible to reach this level except through the gateway provided by the Torah. Only through the intellectual foundations laid down by Torah study can our minds obtain a glimpse of the portion of the universe that is above the levels of ordinary reality.
No amount of intellectual endeavor we invest into studying our world can enable us to climb to the level of binah. God did not program the higher levels of the Sefirot into the universe that he created in seven days. Applying the most brilliant of human minds to the study of the natural universe will never lead to an understanding of the eighth level. While it is clear that the universe must have a plan, the plan is simply not here to be found. This applies no less to emotional experience. Unless God lifts us above ourselves, we can never experience the ecstasy of direct contact with Him without Torah study. Our world is the world of the bottom seven Sefirot and such feelings are simply not a part of it.
TWO EDITIONS OF CREATION
Now let us return to the connection between the eighth day of Passover and the eighth day of Succot. Creation really went through two editions, and Passover and Succot are the holidays that respectively celebrate the creation of each of its editions.
Rabenu Bechaye, a student of Nachmanides, and one of the famous medieval commentators on the Torah in his own right, explains extensively in our Parsha how the Succot celebration concerns the first edition of creation, God's original creation of the world in seven days. During this festival, we bring 70 sacrifices, representing the 70 nations of the world, and we ritually praise God with the four species, which represent the richness of the plant species that God planted in our world.
As Succot celebrates the creation of nature, its dominant theme is thanksgiving for what God has given us through the world of nature and a hope that he continues His generosity during the coming year. The Succot holiday falls at the very end of the harvest season after we have completed the storage of nature's annual bounty safely in our barns. Its theme of thanksgiving fully matches the mood of the season.
The eighth day of Succot, which is a separate holiday onto itself, celebrates God's unique connection to the Jewish people within the realm of the seven days. The Midrash offers a metaphor to convey the spirit of the holiday.
A parable is told of a human king who commanded his servants to make him a huge party. On the last day he told his best friend, "Make me a little meal so that I should enjoy only your company." (Talmud, Succa,55b)
The point of the creation of the natural world with its seventy nations is captured only in the special connection between God and Israel symbolized by the eighth day. No holiday of thanksgiving for the creation can be complete without also thanking God for the special relationship that made it all possible.
In contrast, consider what the "Sefer Hachinuch" has to say about the Omer:
Through this offering we should come to appreciate the tremendous benevolence with which God treats his creatures in providing them with crops that will supply their livelihood each year. Before we partake of any enjoyment from these crops it is fitting to offer part of them to God in thanksgiving. And to remind ourselves that we should make ourselves worthy of receiving His bounty by the worthiness of our deeds, so that His purpose in creating us should become actualized, because He wants His creatures to prosper and succeed.(Chinuch, Mitzva 302)
Thus, we learn that the Omer is also brought to acknowledge the bounty of creation, but the Omer is brought at the very beginning of the spring – when only the barley crop has sprouted, nothing else – and before any of nature's bounty is available for enjoyment. The Omer celebrates the idea that Divine intervention in the world of nature has a purposeful intent; God wants us to prosper and succeed; He is anxious to shower His bounty on us but we must make ourselves worthy of receiving it.
A MEASURE OF MANNA
The word Omer crops up in another connection – the Omer is a weight; it is the measure of the daily portion of manna that fell from the sky in the wilderness (Exodus 16:16). The purpose of the Omer sacrifice is to drive home the message that all the food we eat is really just like the manna, miraculously rationed and provided by God daily, specifically for each individual.
This penetration behind the natural veil of creation is the true revelation of the Exodus. A totally new face of creation from the eighth level up is being revealed. Just as we celebrate the culmination of the first edition of creation on the eighth day of Succot, we celebrate the culmination of the second edition on the eighth day of Passover, Shavuot, the 50th day of the Omer, the day on which the Torah was given.
This is the concept of Atzeret referred to by Nachmanides. The capture of the bounty of nature requires husbandry; man must toil in the field, and then he must store the harvest in order to benefit from nature's bounty. The bounty of revelation – nature in the second edition revealed by the miracles of the Exodus – can also be captured and stored only through planning and husbandry. To hang on to the revelation requires much intellectual effort and work; we are studying a level of reality that is totally beyond the reach of our ordinary senses.
The message contained in the commandment to count the Omer is that we need to construct a spiritual vessel within our hearts and minds in which to store the great revelations of the Exodus. We can only hang on to holiness through a step-by-step learning process, never through the ecstasy of religious inspiration. To hang on to the Exodus you must literally count the days till you can finally sink your teeth into some Torah.