Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,
Vol. I, Parshas Emor
"When you have led the people out of Egypt, you will serve G-d on this mountain."
Recalling this Divine promise to Moshe Rabbeinu, from the moment of the Exodus, the Jews eagerly counted the days until they would reach Mt. Sinai and receive the Torah.
Ever since, our people have counted these 49 days from the second day of Pesach until Shavuos, in fulfillment of the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer.
The sequence of Pesach, Sefiras HaOmer, and Shavuos is much more than a commemoration of a certain segment of history. Each of the three events involved corresponds to a stage of spiritual development in the history of our people and in the life of each individual Jew.
Pesach marks the first stage. Before the Exodus, the Jewish people were enslaved, dominated body and soul by the Egyptians. In Yechezkel, their spiritual state before the Redemption is described as "naked and bare." They could never have been freed from slavery on the basis of their own merit; only through G-d's benevolence was the Exodus possible. He revealed Himself and redeemed them, despite the depths to which they had sunk.
The fact that the redemption from Egypt did not result from the Jews' own divine service affected the manner in which they responded to the freedom they had not earned. Though utterly unprepared for a hurried departure, they fled Egypt at the first opportunity. In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe notes that Pharaoh would have been compelled to grant the Jews freedom even if they had not fled. Why, then, did they flee?
Because the evil in the souls of the Israelites was still strong..., yet their aim and desire was to free their divine souls...from the defilement of Egypt and cling to G-d.
The Jews had not earned their freedom through personal refinement. Fearful that the evil which still influenced them might gain full control of their thought processes, they fled.
Most people are aware of the presence of both good and evil impulses within their hearts. Even an individual who feels inspired to fulfill G-d's will may be faced with a battle, for that part of his nature which opposes this wish will seek the gratification of his personal desires instead. As a result, he might come to believe that he must "flee from himself," and suppress his identity in order to commit himself fully to G-d.
The rejection of evil is, however, only a preliminary stage in our service of G-d. Our ultimate goal should be to unite all the aspects of our personalities in serving Him, as it is written, "Love G-d with all your heart (Bechol Levavecha)." Observing that the Hebrew word for "heart" is spelled here unusually, with a doubled consonant, our Sages interpret this to mean, "with both your hearts": both the yetzer tov ("the good inclination") and the yetzer hara ("the evil inclination") should join forces in the desire to serve G-d.
This level of service can be achieved only through a consistent, concerted effort. For this reason, a significant block of time, the seven weeks of Sefiras HaOmer, is dedicated to this endeavor.
Our striving for systematic spiritual growth during Sefiras HaOmer - a graduation from the animal level to the human level - is reflected in the Omer offering itself. Most of the meal offerings in the Beis HaMikdash consisted of wheat, which, as our Sages note, is primarily human food, while barley is primarily animal fodder. The Omer offering, which signifies the beginning of our process of development after our physical liberation on Pesach, consisted of barley; the offering of Two Loaves, which marks our spiritual maturation with the Giving of the Torah on Shavuos, consisted of wheat.
The spiritual dimension of this contrast is clear. Man, unlike an instinct-driven animal, has the intellectual capacity to control his behavior. The Omer offering represents the beginning of the process of refining the animal aspects of man, the ultimate goal being to bring that part of ourselves which is dominated by self-centered concerns close to G-d.
The 49 days of Sefirah correspond to the 49 emotive attributes within the human character. Each day is related to the elevation of a different trait, as step by step, we refine our personalities.
This process of refinement allows us to resolve the conflict between our good and evil impulses. On Pesach, our individual identity and our spiritual goals may be separate from each other, or even in conflict. We might feel that in order to establish a bond with G-d, we must deny our own identities. The spiritual labors of Sefirah, however, enable us to refine ourselves, allowing the integration of our divine service and our individual personalities, thus adding to the strength of our commitment to G-d.
The counting of Sefirah concludes at the festival of Shavuos, but Shavuos is more than the culmination of Sefirah. The Counting of the Omer, which involves the refinement of the self, is limited by the framework of the individual. It relates only to the Divinity which can be perceived within man's limits.
On Shavuos, by contrast, a level of Divinity which transcends all limitations is revealed. Our Sages teach that during the revelation at Mt. Sinai, "at each [Divine] utterance, the souls [of the Jewish people] took flight." The revelation exceeded the capacity of their limited natures and brought about complete self-nullification.
In a similar fashion, within each individual's service of G-d in all subsequent generations, Shavuos takes us beyond the realm of our individual selves. As a result of the preparation undergone during Sefiras HaOmer, the transcendent revelation of Shavuos (in contrast to the revelations of Pesach) can be accepted by and integrated within the finite limits our individual personalities.
The potential to internalize our spiritual development afforded by Shavuos is reflected in the special offering brought on that day, the Two Loaves. As a rule, chametz (leaven) may not be offered as a sacrifice. On Pesach, furthermore, all traces of chametz, the symbol of bloated self-assertion, are forbidden. However, once the self has become refined and transformed through the service of Sefirah, not only is chametz permitted, it can even serve as a mitzvah.
On a personal level, the Pesach-Sefirah-Shavuos sequence teaches us that through our service of G-d, we can establish a bond with the transcendent dimension of G-dliness. In order to relate G-dliness to our daily experience, the personal refinement developed through the process of Sefiras HaOmer is necessary. This service directs a person toward refining himself and seeking personal fulfillment. Afterwards, through the Torah's influence, one can proceed to transform himself, his home, and his surrounding environment into a "sanctuary in microcosm,"
a place where the Divine Presence is revealed.
And by revealing G-dliness within the reality of our contemporary experience, we prepare the world for the coming of the era when "the world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean bed." May this era come speedily in our days.
- (Back to text) Shmos 3:12.
- (Back to text) Rabbeinu Nissim, end of Pesachim.
- (Back to text) 16:7.
- (Back to text) Our Sages (Zohar Chadash, beginning of Parshas Yisro) relate that the Jews in Egypt had sunk to the 49th level of impurity. This spiritual descent is rectified, step by step, by the counting of the 49 days of the Omer.
- (Back to text) Ch. 31. This concept is related to Sefiras HaOmer in Likkutei Torah, Parshas Vayikra, p. 3a.
- (Back to text) Devarim 6:5.
- (Back to text) Berachos 54a.
- (Back to text) Sotah 14a.
- (Back to text) Ibid.; Pesachim 3b.
- (Back to text) Likkutei Torah, Parshas Emor, p. 70+ff.
- (Back to text) As hinted in the kinship between korban ("offering") and karov ("close"), bringing a sacrificial offering draws one close to G-d. See Basi LeGani 5710 (English translation; Kehot, N.Y., 1990), ch. 2.
- (Back to text) As explained in Tanya, ch. 3, our emotional structure comprises seven interrelated attributes which, in their various permutations and combinations, encompass the full range of human emotion. For example, the first of these attributes is Chesed ("kindness") and the second is Gevurah ("might"). At times, the two are expressed in combination; e.g., a father disciplines his son because of his love for him. This is an instance of Gevurah shebeChesed, where the outwardly visible sternness is motivated by an underlying kindness.
When each of the seven attributes is paired with each of the others, the 49 combinations correspond to the 49 days of Sefiras HaOmer. As reflected in the prayer beginning Ribbono shel Olam which is recited after the counting of the Omer (Siddur Tehillat HaShem, p. 341), each night's counting is devoted to the refinement of a different one of these combinations of attributes.
Significantly, this is one of the few Kabbalistic concepts which the Alter Rebbe includes in his Siddur, which he intended as a text of universal relevance. This inclusion implies that this concept can be appreciated and applied by every man, woman, and child who prays.
- (Back to text) Shabbos 88b; see also Tanya, ch. 36.
- (Back to text) See Vayikra 23:17.
- (Back to text) Vayikra 23:17; Menachos 52b.
- (Back to text) Shmos 12:15. See also the above essay entitled "The Significance of Matzah."
- (Back to text) Cf. Yechezkel 11:16.
- (Back to text) Yeshayahu 11:9, quoted by the Rambam at the conclusion of his description of the Era of the Redemption in the Mishneh Torah.