“You shall count for yourselves…seven weeks, they shall be complete” (Vayikra 23:15).
Rabbeinu Nissim writes that when Moshe told the Jewish nation, “[Y]ou will serve Hashem on this mountain” (Shemos 3:12), they asked, “When shall we do this?” Moshe replied that it would be at the end of 50 days.
Each member of Klal Yisrael then began to count the days for himself in anticipation of matan Torah, which is the rabbinic source for the mitzvah of sefiras ha’omer.
The Chinuch cites Yirmiyahu (33:25), stating that the heavens and earth were created solely with the intent that the Jewish nation accept the Torah, and they were redeemed from Egypt only so that they could accept the Torah. Counting the days from the second day of Pesach until Shavuos demonstrates our unconditional desire for the Torah, like a man who thirsts for water.
But if that’s the case, says the Chinuch, why do we count the number of days that have passed rather than the number of days ahead of us until kabbalas haTorah?
The Chinuch answers that since we yearn so deeply for this day, it’s less discouraging to count the days that passed than it is to start off with a long stretch of 50 days and slowly count down.
Rav Yisroel La’ish offers an additional explanation. He says waiting for kabbalas haTorah cannot be compared to waiting for any other joyous occasion because kabbalas haTorah requires special spiritual preparation, contemplation, and introspection. With each passing day, an individual prepares more such that he’s more worthy of kabbalas haTorah.
This thought is actually expressed in the short prayer we recite after counting the Omer, which states: “Master of the universe, You commanded us through Moshe, Your servant, to count sefirah in order to purify us from our spiritual defilement.”
From what spiritual impurity are we being cleansed and how does counting sefirah effect this cleansing?
R’ Meir Hominick explains that an individual’s spirituality is continually threatened by his taavah (desire). Taavah is not exclusively bad. In fact, if a person longs for holiness, he can ascend great spiritual heights; however, excessive craving for material acquisitions is deleterious. The sifrei mussar (ethical literature) tell us that these two forms of desire – for the material and the spiritual – are like fire and water. When the desire for material possessions is stronger, the desire for Olam Haba is weakened. The reverse is true as well.
Sefiras ha’omer has the power to purify us from the desire of excess. By counting the days towards kabbalas haTorah, one demonstrates how eager one is for the long-awaited day. This act bolster one’s spiritual inclination and pulls him away from the strong influence of material attraction.
The Noam Megadim notes that when a person is deeply absorbed in Torah study, he develops various hypotheses, interpretations, and novellae. How, though, can he ascertain that these idea are actually sound? Tehillim 19:9 states “The orders of Hashem are righteous, causing the heart to rejoice; the commandment of Hashem is clear, enlightening the eyes.” When a person experiences immense joy and clarity of mind, says the Noam Megadim, he can be sure his ideas are well-founded and legitimate. It’s a gift from Hashem to those who learn Torah for the sake of Heaven.
The great Brisker Rav, accompanied by a disciple, was once walking outside on a bitter cold day. Engrossed in a Talmudic discussion, he wasn’t very aware of his surroundings when suddenly a strange sight caught his eye. In the distance, he saw a man excitedly dancing in the snow holding a book in his hand.
Seeking clarification, the Brisker Rav began to walk towards him. The young man with him wryly remarked, “The man seems to be acting in a bizarre manner. Why doesn’t he go into his house where it’s warm instead of dancing outside in the snow and sleet?”
The Brisker Rav replied, “This doesn’t look like the dance of a crazy person. Such an individual wouldn’t hold onto a sefer tightly while he dances. If he’s dancing like this, he must be Rav Elazar Shach.”
As they came closer, they saw that it was indeed Rav Shach who was holding a Rambam in his hand as he exultantly jumped and leapt in the snow.
“What’s the reason for your simcha?” asked the Brisker Rav.
With a gleam in his eye, Rav Shach answered, “What do you mean? I found an answer to the difficult Rambam we were learning. Why would I not dance from great happiness?”
Afterwards, when Rav Shach encountered a talmid chacham, he concernedly remarked to him, “I’m afraid I won’t merit Gan Eden.”
“Why not?” asked his colleague.
Rav Shach explained, “In light of all the pleasure I derive from learning together with the Brisker Rav, I don’t know what enjoyment will remain for me in the World to Come.”
The joy Rav Schach experienced is the true joy of Torah that permeates an individual who cleaves to Hashem and His Torah every moment of the day.