Download: The Blessings for the Omer
As we enter the spring holiday season we begin a journey of the soul with the Sefirat haOmer – the counting of the sheaves. From the second day of Pesach until the night before Shavuot we engage in the Biblical mitzvah of counting the omer (Leviticus 23:15-16). From this day on the people could begin enjoying the fruits of the spring harvest, which was recognized by offering up barley in the Temple for 49 days. On the 50th day from Pesach the harvest of new wheat would be brought to the Temple and offered up as a grand culmination to this seven week period of celebration (Deuteronomy 6:9-10).
What was so special about this return to offering fine wheat flour in the Temple that the people would wait in vigil for it’s ripening and feel moved to celebrate it? Though barley was an important grain that the nation relied upon, it was not the choicest of grains. Barley was most often used as feed for animals. However wheat was the main food staple for humans. During the Exodus the barley took on the symbol of being coarse and unrefined, it reminded people of their animistic urges. Conversely wheat represented finer characteristics of human dignity and civility, which we should all desire to have.
Though we no longer offer meal offerings in the Holy Temple, we nonetheless still recognize this period for personal accounting for our souls. We try to refine our personal midot (traits, habits) in preparation for the receiving of the Torah, which is commemorated on Shavuot.
If we don’t actually offer or weight out any grains, why do we still count it? In Psalm 90, a psalm attributed to Moses, we see the most interesting request asked of G-d:
“Teach us to count our days, that we may acquire a heart
| Limanot yameinu, kein hodah; v’navi, l’vav
Our sages teach us that the children of Israel were brought out of Egypt for the purpose of receiving the Torah. If Pesach is the celebration of our liberation, then Shavuot is the celebration of our receiving the Torah as our constitution. It wasn’t enough for G-d to set us free, He also gave us a new way of life with liberties spelled out in the Torah. During the seven week sefirah period the people anxiously awaited the giving of this Torah, counting down the days in restless anticipation and engaging in self-development in order to be worthy of receiving this great gift.
Ibn Ezra tells us that not only are we taught by this verse to count the days, we are also shown the principal that wise people make each day count. Everyday we should do a little bit of work on improving ourselves.
During each week of the omer period we focus one of the seven sefirot (Divine Forces of G-d’s Nature) that are active in the physical world. Each day of the week we focus on one specific attribute of these sefirot, to focus on correcting one small part of our character. Self-development doesn’t require one to focus on lofty and ethereal concepts, nor does it demand grueling struggle. All we need to do is decide to make real world improvements in our character, a little bit each day.
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