One can’t help but wonder what is so significant about the number seven that Hashem makes it so relevant to cycles of time: the seven day week, the seven year shmittah cycle, and then the 7×7 cycles of the Yovel and the Omer? Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, zt”l points out that all units of time are connected to a physical cycle. Night and day are based on the rotation of the earth. A year is the cycle of the earth moving around the sun. A month is based on the rotation of the moon around the earth. But the unit of a week has no connection to anything! Holy Shabbos, the seventh day, receives its sanctity only because Hashem rested on that day. This gives us insight into how we can serve Hashem by keeping Shabbos; as the seventh day has no link to any physical reality of its own, keeping Shabbos allows us to physically testify that Hashem created the world.
We find this to be true about the shmittah year as well: “Veshavsa Haaretz Shabbos LaHashem – the land shall rest a resting for Hashem” (Behar 25:2). Rashi explains that this means for the sake of Hashem – just like Shabbos. Eretz Yisroel‘s resting during the shmittah year proclaims Hashem as the Creator of the world just as Shabbos does, for the unit of time – seven – is solely connected to the creation of the world. The Kli Yakar gives us an amazing insight; he says that the counting of fifty years is symbolic of a man’s lifetime. The average life of man is seventy (“Yemei shenosayhem bahem shiv’im shana” Tehillim 90), but for the first twenty years, a person is still maturing and developing. The prime years of a person’s life are between 20 and 70.
Obviously, it is no coincidence that the period of the Omer is structured in the exact same model: Sheva Shabasos – seven weeks. We count seven days, it’s a week; we count seven of those units and that’s the Omer. And at the culmination of the Omer, just like at the culmination of the seven shmitos, we have a special celebration: Shavous.
So let’s examine the progression of the Omer. The start of the Omer period is marked by bringing the first harvest of barley to the Beis HaMikdash as a mincha offering. On Shavuos we have a different grain offering, the Two Loaves, brought from a mincha offering of the first harvest of wheat. The Slonimer Rav, zt”l in Nesivos Shalom explains that the Torah is teaching us the focus of this period. The Gemara labels barley as animal food and wheat – bread – as human food. The focus of this period is to develop ourselves and refine our character. We start off like animals (and when we first came out of Mitzrayim, the angels complained to Hashem about saving Bnei Yisroel, “These are idol worshippers and those are idol worshippers!”) but are expected to grow daily and develop into humans. The goal is to transform ourselves from being an instinct-ruled animal that looks like a human to being a human who is only physically an animal. An animal’s instincts control it, but a human controls his instincts.
When commanding us to count the Omer, the Torah tells us “Vesofarta lecha.” Rav Dessler, zt”l explains that the counting must be a personal counting (“Lecha” to you), because it is a period of self-development. The Torah calls the mincha offering of wheat which is brought on Shavuos a “Mincha Chadasha,” a new offering. What is its newness? We are the offering, says the Nesivos Shalom, when we have transformed ourselves into a new creation.
The Omer is a microcosm of our life; we need a plan to give us focus during these 49 days, in order to be prepared to take full advantage of the transcendent 50th day. We are given a frame of reference – a deadline – in order to help us focus on the goal. When we wake up it’s not just another day, our weekends are not mundane TGIFs (Thank G-d it’s Friday), rather they represent steps in a cycle: every week is a unit of its own, every seven years is a unit of its own. Living this way helps us structure and plan accordingly. We must ask ourselves what we want to accomplish this week, and what we want to accomplish by the end of this seven-week or seven-year segment period of our lives – refining specific character traits, building or deepening relationships, attaining goals in Torah study. The Torah has given us timetables that need to be filled; it is incumbent upon us to utilize these cycles, and particularly the one we are in middle of – the Omer – to manifest all our actions in testimony of Hashem. And the greatest testimony that exists is the human being himself.
We are a tzelem Elokim, an image of Hashem. When one meets a Gadol – and if you’ve met with one, you will know how true this is – the most striking thing is not his incredible Torah knowledge, fear of Heaven, or even his love and concern for others. Yes, he has all three of these incredible traits; however, the most striking thing about him is the glow of a perfected human being, a complete man. And that’s our job, our goal…and it’s attainable! It’s a lifelong mission which we can succeed at if we count the days. It takes constant work; it’s a daily job.
Each morning when we wake up we must remember that it’s our mission for the day. We say modeh ani for this opportunity each morning. Try it immediately – make a plan and work at it for one week. The week will not be seven days; you will see it becomes a unit. Add one unit to the next – grow and succeed.
About the Author: Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is Associate Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Passaic Torah Institute, Passaic, NJ.
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