Children are dreamers; they live in a world of fantasy, where anything is possible. Just ask a group of children what they want to be when they grow up and you’ll get some of the most fantastic, unrealistic responses imaginable. “I’m going to be an astronaut fireman, so that I can save people on the moon,“ or “I’m going to become a great tzaddik and learn how to speak every language so that I can teach Torah to everyone”. Children live within the infinite, the realm of endless possibility. However, as they grow up, they begin to experience the struggle of reality, where their notions of the infinite start being challenged. Imagine young adult lying on a grassy field, gazing into the nighttime sky. As he stares up into the stars, he thinks to himself, “Look at how enormous the universe is. The sky just expands endlessly… It must go on forever.” After sitting with that thought for a few moments, he becomes uncomfortable. “How can anything go on forever? Everything must stop eventually.” But after a few moments of ease, his thoughts intrude again. “But how can the universe stop? What exists on the other side, when the universe ends? It has to go on forever…” And this inner conversation continues, as he struggles to contemplate the infinite within his finite mind.
This child’s struggle is not a childish one; it is a challenge that confronts any finite being who tries to connect to the infinite. We are all faced with the question: How do we, as physical beings, transcend our finite dimensions? How do we relate to the abstract, to the infinite, to the spiritual? Let us approach this question through the lens of Sefiras Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer.
Sefiras Ha’Omer: Our Yearly Counting
We are commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos, a period known as Sefiras Ha’Omer. At first glance, this can be understood on a very simple level: As we head towards Matan Torah (giving of the Torah), eagerly anticipating our acceptance of the Torah, we excitedly count down to our expected destination. This can be compared to a countdown towards one’s wedding, or a vacation, or some other exciting event. However, there is a feature of the Sefiras Ha’Omer count that is markedly different: Rather than counting down towards the destination, Shavuos, we count up from the starting point, Pesach. We don’t mark how many days we have left until Shavuos, we count how many days have elapsed since Pesach. What is the meaning behind this strange method of counting? And more generally, what is the purpose of counting in the first place? By no other chagim (holidays) do we count from one to another; we don’t count the days between Sukkos and Chanukah. Why then do we specifically count the days between Pesach and Shavuos?
Building, Not Counting
In truth, we are not counting down to Matan Torah, we are building towards it, ascending one day at a time. We do not wait for Shavuos to arrive; we actively bring it ourselves, through the time and effortt we invest as we count the Omer. If Shavuos and Matan Torah is a skyscraper, each day of the Omer is a brick. Each day we place the next brick in our building, each day we build ourselves one step further. The extensive halachic emphasis on counting each and every day of the Omer highlights the fact that every single brick is essential, every single day is fundamental. If, when building a staircase, you miss one step, you can’t lay down the next step up. It requires a foundation to rest on. The same is true of counting the Omer, each day builds upon the previous ones, ascending towards our ultimate destination. Matan Torah does not come after the passing of 49 days, it comes because of them, built by our effort and investment during Sefiras Ha’Omer. This is why we count up; we are not counting down to Matan Torah, we are building up towards it, one day at a time.
This understanding of Sefiras Ha’Omer sheds light on the Ramban’s enigmatic approach to the counting of the Omer. He maintains that women are obligated to count the Omer because it is not a mitzvas aseh she’hazman gramah– a time-bound mitzvah. How are we to understand this? Sefiras Ha’Omer, the counting of each specific day between Pesach and Shavuos, seems like the epitome of a time-bound mitzvah!
However, a deeper understanding of Sefiras Ha’Omer clarifies the Ramban’s opinion. In general, a time-bound mitzvah is an opportunity to tap into a certain power of time that exists at that moment. On Pesach, when we eat matzah, we tap into the power of freedom, a pre-existing reality. This same principle applies to all time–bound mitzvos. For Sefiras Ha’Omer, however, we are not tapping into a pre-existing time, we are creating time. When we count the Omer, we do not tap into the reality of the Omer, we create it. Time is not creating the Omer, we are. This is there is no specific date mentioned for Shavuos in the Torah. Shavuos, and Matan Torah, is not tied to a specific day (the sixth of Sivan), but is the result of the 49 days that we count. The fiftieth day, the day of Shavuos and Matan Torah, emerges from the 49 days of counting. We bring it into existence. This is why the holiday of Shavuos literally means “weeks”– the seven weeks that we count creates this chag.
Connecting to the Infinite
Just like the little boy in the introduction, we all struggle to connect with the infinite, to see the spiritual within the physical, to find genuine meaning and purpose in an often turbulent and chaotic world. It can feel overbearing to build a skyscraper, the task is quite daunting. However, the key is to have the ultimate goal in the back of our minds while we focus on each individual day, trying our best to place each individual brick perfectly. Each day of the Omer is a new brick- a new part of our journey towards Matan Torah, towards the infinite, towards marrying Hashem. May we be inspired to create something magical as we build towards Matan Torah, one day at a time.