Make it Count: Sefirat HaOmer

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah 
                                                     for her neshama.

By Shayna Hulkower
Ultra Orthodox Jewish man harvests wheat ahead of the Jewish Shavuot holiday, in a field outside the Israeli community of Mevo Horon
Whether you are relieved or saddened Pesach is behind us, we are still in the midst of a special time. The period between Pesach and Shavuot is called 'The Omer'. It is a time when we count, each day, up to the holiday of Shavuot. There are many questions associated with this: usually when we are excited and looking forward to an event, we count down to it - not up! And the omer is actually barley - what does that have to do with anything? Let us explore.

First, let's go back around 4,000 or so years. The Jews had just ended their slavery in Egypt, and once they were able to see their former slave masters dead on the seashore after the splitting of the Red Sea, they were able to take a breath, and begin the transition from slave to free man. It's not so easy to pitom (suddenly) go from such a low and disenfranchised place to one of responsibility. Not to mention the fact that the Jews were also on a very low place spiritually - the so-called 49th level of tumah (you don't want to be at the 50th level). And, as it happens to be, Shavuot, the holiday where we celebrate receiving the Torah is 50 days after the night we left Mitzrayim (Egypt). It was during this period of 7 weeks (shavuot  means 'weeks' in Hebrew) the Jewish people spent time in the desert working on themselves, and preparing themselves to receive the Torah.

What does all of this have to do with barley? Yes, it's one of the seven species special to Eretz Yisrael, and perhaps more appreciated this time of year after having to abstain from all leavened grain products for seven or eight days. Yes, this is the time of year when the spring grains can be harvested, and many cultures have spring harvest festivals. But why barley and not wheat? Or spelt? Barley is traditionally a grain fed to animals. It's not really a people food (unless you count it in a cholent on Shabbat!). During this period of seven weeks we are working on so many things - taking the spiritual heights we hopefully reached over Pesach and working to integrate those changes into our character. This is no easy task. Each day as we count the omer there is another Gate opened above, allowing us to tap into the powers of chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod, yesod,and malchut corresponding to loving kindness, discipline, harmony, endurance, humility, connection, and leadership. These are character traits that we can only achieve if we rid ourselves of our more animalistic tendencies. For example, doing things because they are just although not comfortable, or powering through because we know the delayed gratification will be all the sweeter - these are high-level ideas and emotions. These aren't concepts that someone just out of slavery could take upon themselves easily. So each day, slowly slowly, we work to bring ourselves up - out of slavery and worthy of receiving the Torah from G-d.

The counting up allows us to value the growth we are hopefully experiencing each day. It's not that we are counting down to something, but rather building up to it. We're already two weeks into the omer, but it's not too late to jump in and work on yourself from now until Shavuot. Whatever it is that you want to accomplish - it's there waiting for you. 

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