By Ellyn Hutt
The count is on. Since the second night of Pesach, Jewish people around the world have been involved in Counting the Omer, counting the 49 days that took us from the Exodus from Egypt in the month of Nisan to standing at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah at Shavuos in the month of Sivan. Why did the Jewish people need to wait 49 days, seven long weeks, to receive the Torah after they left Egypt? Wouldn’t it have been better to give us the Torah right after we crossed the Sea and had finally and completely escaped the Egyptians?
Our sages teach us that the Jewish people were at the 49th level — out of 50 possible levels — of spiritual impurity and disconnection at the time they left Egypt. We could not have sunk much lower. Even though we were freed from Egypt, we were not spiritually ready to receive the Torah. However, time alone doesn’t elevate a person or a nation. We needed to work on refining ourselves to become worthy recipients of the treasure of Torah.
That was then and this is now. Why do we, today, need to go through this process in any more than a perfunctory and commemorative way? The reality is that Hashem is continually giving the Torah to us, and so the work of refining ourselves to be worthy recipients is ongoing for everyone every year. It is not limited to the Jewish people at the time of the Exodus. Therefore we, too, go through a 49-day counting process between Pesach and Shavuos .
Whenever we count something, our attention is drawn to what we are counting. In Hebrew, counting the omer is called “Sefirat HaOmer.” Looking at the word sefirat will give us insight into what our counting is all about and what can be achieved during this 49-day period of potential growth and transformation. Sefirat is related to the word Sefirot, the seven Divine qualities that we work on during each of the seven weeks of the Omer: Chesed (Kindness), Gevurah (Discipline), Tiferet (Harmony/Compassion), Netzach (Endurance), Hod (Yielding), Yesod (Integrity), and Malchut (Sovereignty). We are in the third week of counting, which means that we are concluding the week of Tiferet. We spent the week looking at the quality of harmony and compassion in our lives. Where are our strengths, where are our weaknesses? How can I make my acts of compassion more compassionate, more consistent? Am I humble or arrogant in my compassion? Have I integrated compassion into my being or does it remain an external task to complete? Do I get overly involved or do I respect my own and other people’s boundaries? This is an example of the spiritual work we can do that makes our counting count.
The seven weeks of Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer, span the months of Nisan (after the first day of Pesach), Iyar, and the first days of Sivan, with every day of Iyar being involved in the count. Having celebrated Rosh Chodesh Iyar this week, we are now in the month that is most focused on the process of counting our steps up to higher and higher levels of personal growth.
Each of the 12 Hebrew months corresponds to one of the 12 tribes of the Jewish people. The tribe associated with the month of Iyar is Issaschar. On the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, each tribe was represented by a precious stone. The stone for the tribe of Issaschar is the Sapphire, which is Sapir in Hebrew. Sapir and Sefirah have the same Hebrew root, Samech, Peh, Reish. Interestingly, the precious stone for the month of Iyar, the sapir, gives us a big hint as to what we are engaged in during the month. Like a precious gem coming straight from the mine, which needs to be cut and polished to reveal the inherent value and beauty, we need to work on refining and polishing our characters and personal qualities to reveal the intrinsic value and beauty of our souls. When we make the effort and invest the time to do this, we become beautiful and worthy recipients of the Torah.
The opening words of this week’s Torah portion of Kedoshim are Kedoshim tee-hee-yu, “You shall be holy, for holy am I, Hashem your G-d.” We are to elevate ourselves and to become holy so we can be similar to and connect to the holiness of G-d. These 49 days of Sefirat Ha-Omer give us a daily path to help us achieve that goal. You can count on it.