Parshat Emor תשפב

                In this week’s portion, Emor, the Torah (Leviticus 23:10) instructs us to bring the Omer barley sacrifice:

(י) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת קְצִירָהּ וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם אֶל הַכֹּהֵן

10) Speak to the Israelites and tell them, “When you come to the land that I am going to give you, and you reap its harvest, you must bring an omer (about 2 quarts) of your first reaping to the priest.”

When the Holy Temple stood, a daily sacrifice, the קרבן תמיד, was brought every morning and evening. Our current morning prayer,  שחרית– Shacharit, corresponds to, and substitutes for, the morning sacrifice, and the afternoon service,מנחה  – Mincha, corresponds to, and substitutes for, the afternoon sacrifice. The Mussaf מוסף service added to our prayers on Shabbat and the Festivals corresponds to the additional sacrifice, called the מוסף קרבן  – Mussaf sacrifice, added in honor of the Shabbat or the Festival.

On the second day of Pesach, the 16th day of Nissan, a special sacrifice called the קרבן העומר  – the Omer sacrifice – was added. It consisted of a one-year-old sheep, and an omer (measure) of barley flour sifted 13 times mixed with oil and a small measure of incense. A Cohen would wave the flour offering in all six directions, and touch it to the southwest corner of the outside altar. He would then remove a small amount of the mixture and burn it in the fire on the altar. The remainder of the mixture was divided among the Cohanim who would eat it.

An additional mitzvah, viz, to count the Omer, is also stated in this week’s portion (Leviticus 23;15,16), via which we are commanded to count each of the 49 days from the day that the Omer sacrifice was brought until the festival of Shavuot, which is the 50th day.

טו) וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה:

טז) עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַידֹוָד:

15) You shall count for yourselves – from the morrow of the rest day (the first day of Passover) from the day when you bring the Omer of the waiving – seven complete weeks. 16) Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to Hashem.

Notice that the Torah mandates seven complete weeks of counting as well as a counting of fifty days.  This is why when counting the Omer we are careful to mention both weeks and days.

To fulfill this mitzvah, after the stars come out signaling the beginning of the new day (the Jewish day begins with sundown), we count that day. Since we are fulfilling a commandment, we recite a blessing prior to fulfilling the mitzvah after which we proceed to count the day of the omer by stating which day of the 49 it is. So, on the 29th day, for example, we say, “Today is the 29th day of the omer, comprising four weeks and one day.”

The counting of the omer culminates with the Festival of Shavuot, the day on which the Jewish nation received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The counting of the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot creates a connection between these two holidays, whereby Pesach commences the process, which concludes with Shavuot.

What is the relationship between these two Festivals? The Sefer HaChinuch (attributed to Rav Aharon Halevi of Barcelona of the 13th century). a work that counts and explains each of the 613 mitzvot, explains in Mitzvah #306, the Mitzvah to Count the Omer,

משרשי המצוה על צד הפשט, לפי שכל עיקרן של ישראל אינו אלא התורה, ומפני התורה נבראו שמים וארץ וישראל, וכמו שכתוב [ירמיהו ל”ג, כ”ה] אם לא בריתי יומם ולילה וגו’. והיא העיקר והסיבה שנגאלו ויצאו ממצרים כדי שיקבלו התורה בסיני ויקיימוה, וכמו שאמר השם למשה [שמות ג’, י”ב] וזה לך האות כי אנכי שלחתיך בהוציאך את העם ממצרים תעבדון את האלהים על ההר הזה … נצטוינו למנות ממחרת יום טוב של פסח עד יום נתינת התורה, להראות בנפשנו החפץ הגדול אל היום הנכבד הנכסף ללבנו

The simple understanding of this mitzvah is that since the main focus of the Jewish people is the Torah and it was for the sake of the Torah that Hashem created the heavens, the earth, and the Jewish people, … and that was the purpose for which they were freed from Egypt, to receive the Torah on Sinai and fulfill it…, we were commanded to count from the day after Pesach until the giving of the Torah, to show in our souls the tremendous desire and yearning for that great day. 

Just as we naturally count the days to an event about which we are very excited and can’t wait for, so, too, the Jewish people counted the days until they would receive the Torah.

Generally, though, when we can’t wait for something, we count “down:” only 40 days left until my vacation, … now it’s only 35 days. So why here are we counting up?

When we count down the days to a vacation, for example, what we really want is for the vacation day to be here now. The problem is that my departure date is 40 days from now, and those 40 days are in the way of my vacation. As the days pass, the interruption becomes smaller, and my dream comes closer. The “count down” numbers reflect how big a gap there is between me and the fulfillment of my dream.

Just the opposite obtains in the case of counting the Omer, where the days preceding the receiving of the Torah are days of preparation. Because when the Jews left Egypt they were not yet on the proper level to receive the Torah on Sinai, they needed to purge themselves of the negative Egyptian influences that were still so much part of them.

Our Sages teach us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they were at the very lowest level that they could possibly be. There are 49 levels of evil in the world, and 50 levels of holiness. Just before leaving Egypt, the Jewish people were at evil level #49. Had they slipped any further, it would have been too late, and they would never have been able to leave Egypt. This is why they had to leave in such a haste. Had they stayed in Egypt any longer, they would have descended to the point of no return and would no longer have been worthy of leaving Egypt.

Each day that the Jews travelled from Egypt, they transformed themselves from a level of evil to a level of holiness. When the 49th day came, they were ready to receive the Torah, which is the 50th level of Holiness.  

During this period of spiritual growth, we count up, charting and assessing our growth. Each passing day represents a greater distance from the past and the achievement of a new level of closeness to Hashem.

As the Jewish people travelled from Egypt to Sinai, it is easy to imagine the high they were on. They miraculously walked through the Reed Sea on dry land with walls of water around them, then saw the Egyptians drown in that very sea when the water came crashing down on them. The Jewish people were surrounded by special clouds that protected them from the sun and their enemies, that led the way during the day, while a pillar of fire guided them throughout the night. Their food, the mana, came directly from heaven, and the water they drank came from a rock, which looked like a doughnut that rolled with them and that fell on its side to create a well. They were being pampered in the cocoon of Hashem’s loving embrace, and their relationship with Him grew stronger with every moment.

The Jewish nation did not bring the Omer sacrifice during their 40 years in the desert; that mitzvah was only to begin once the Jewish people entered the land of Israel.  Nevertheless, every year after completing their Pesach seders, they would remember and focus on the 49 days that they travelled from Egypt to Sinai to receive the Torah. These would no doubt be remembered as important days in their lives, as the growth they experienced through them was so great.

But how would the future Jewish people, throughout the ages, experience those same feelings of growth and preparation for the auspicious day of Shavuot?  “The counting of the Omer” is designed to help us with this great task.

Prior to bringing the Omer sacrifice on the second day of Pesach, it was forbidden to eat newly grown grain harvested before Pesach. Bringing the Omer sacrifice permitted consumption of the new grain. Moreover, the Torah provided that when no Omer sacrifice can be brought (when there would be no Temple), the second day of Pesach itself permits the new grain for consumption. So nowadays, new crops are permitted automatically after the second day of Pesach.

Once again, the Sefer Hachinuch enlightens us about the meaning of the mitzvah of the Omer sacrifice in Mitzvah #302, the Mitzvah to bring the Omer Sacrifice.

משרשי המצוה, כדי שנתבונן מתוך המעשה החסד הגדול שעושה השם ברוך הוא עם בריותיו לחדש להם שנה שנה תבואה למחיה, לכן ראוי לנו שנקריב לו ברוך הוא ממנה, למען נזכור חסדו וטובו הגדול טרם נהנה ממנה ומתוך שנהיה ראויין לברכה בהכשר מעשינו לפניו תתברך תבואתינו ויושלם חפץ השם בנו, שחפץ מרוב טובו בברכת בריותיו.

The understanding of this mitzvah is that through this act, prior to partaking of the new crop of wheat, we acknowledge and remember Hashem’s great kindness and goodness, that He provides grain and sustenance for his creatures every year. And through doing this worthy deed, we make ourselves worthy of Hashem’s blessing, and He will bless our wheat thus fulfilling His desire to bestow blessings upon His creatures.

By not eating of the new crop until we have brought the Omer sacrifice, we are showing Hashem that we understand that all of our sustenance comes from Him. Our recognizing Him as the source of our blessing is, itself, the greatest reason to receive more blessing from Hashem. How is that? When Hashem sees that we have used the blessing He gave us as a tool for coming closer to Him, since Hashem wants to have the closest possible relationship with us, He gives us more reasons to thank Him, so we will come even closer.

This same concept applies to reciting a blessing on food or a beverage before partaking of it. The short blessing acknowledges Hashem as the source of our blessing, and, in turn, because we have connected to Hashem through it, He bestows more blessings upon us.

The Midrash adds an additional insight into the matter.

מדרש רבה ויקרא – פרשה כח פסקה א

א”ר ינאי: בנוהג שבעולם אדם לוקח ליטרא אחת של בשר מן השוק כמה יגיעות הוא יגע כמה צער הוא מצטער עד שבישלה והבריות ישנין על מטותיהן והקדוש ברוך הוא משיב רוחות ומעלה עננים ומגדל צמחים ומדשן את הפירות ואין נותנים לו אלא שכר העומר הה”ד והבאתם את עומר ראשית קצירכם אל הכהן

Rabbi Yanai said: When a person buys a pound of meat from the store, how much work and toil must he put into preparing it before it is ready to eat. And while people are sleeping in bed, Hashem makes the winds blow that bring the clouds that irrigate the earth to bring forth delicious fruits and vegetables for us to eat, and all we give in return is one omer of barley.   

The offering of a few pounds of barley flour, the Omer sacrifice, shows that we understand that crops don’t grow by themselves. They cannot grow without Hashem’s love and care to create the proper climate and conditions for their growth. Although this all occurs while we are asleep, we know that it is the great kindness of Hashem that allows it to happen.

A different Midrash adds yet another dimension to the Omer sacrifice.

מדרש רבה ויקרא – פרשה כח פסקה ג

אמר רבי ברכיה: אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה לך אמור להם לישראל כשהייתי נותן לכם את המן הייתי נותן עומר לכל אחד ואחד מכם הה”ד (שמות טו) עומר לגלגולת ועכשיו שאתם נותנים לי את העומר אין לי אלא עומר אחד מכלכם

Rabbi Brachia said: Hashem told Moshe. Tell the Jewish people that when I gave you the mana, I would give a full omer of mana for each one of you, but now, when you give Me an omer, I ask only one omer from all of you.

This Midrash connects the Omer offering that the Jewish people brought after entering Israel to the omer (measure) of mana that Hashem gave per person during the 40 years that the Jewish people travelled through the desert. The measure of grain that we are offering to Hashem as a sacrifice is our way of expressing to Hashem that we understand that our daily bread is exactly like the ration of mana that You gave the Jewish people in the desert, an omer per person. And although it is not an open miracle like the mana was, we know that it is You, Hashem, who manipulates nature such that we receive our daily bread.

This lesson was only necessary once the Jewish people entered the land of Israel, where the miraculous existence they enjoyed for 40 years would no longer be the norm. Hashem used this open-miracle policy only when He was in the mode of establishing the foundations of the Jewish nation. Once and for all, through the ten plagues, and through the constant miracles that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their 40-year journey in the desert, Hashem established the fundamental tenets of our Torah: That He created the world, that He controls the world, and that He is involved with each individual in the Jewish nation. These foundations were ingrained into our grandparents during the 40 years that they spent in the loving, miraculous cocoon of Hashem.

Once, however, they would enter the land of Israel, these miracles would cease, and the people would have to go back to the conventional ways of procuring their food. They would plant, they would water, they would weed, etc., generating the perception of “it sure looks like it’s me who is making things happen.”  The danger of forgetting Hashem, and thinking that “I’m in control!”  would be very great. We may provide the conduit, but, ultimately Hashem needs to bless that conduit and make it fruitful.  Therefore, the need for the lesson of the Omer to set us straight, to prevent us from losing sight of the reality; Hashem is behind the scenes making everything work out perfectly, so that we have our daily food, such as the mana. The same is true as far as all our other blessings is concerned.

The Sefer Hachinuch addresses one more question. Why don’t we start the counting from the first day of Pesach? Indeed, the purpose of the Exodus was to receive the Torah, and that started on the very first day of Pesach!

ואם תשאל, אם כן למה אנו מתחילין אותו ממחרת השבת ולא מיום ראשון, התשובה כי היום הראשון נתייחד כולו להזכרת הנס הגדול והוא יציאת מצרים, שהוא אות ומופת בחידוש העולם ובהשגחת השם על בני האדם, ואין לנו לערב בשמחתו ולהזכיר עמו שום ענין אחר, ועל כן נתקן החשבון מיום שני מיד

The answers is, that the first day of Pesach is set aside to remember and celebrate the great miracle of our release from Egypt, which provides testimony and proof that Hashem created the world and that He is involved in people’s lives; and we cannot dilute this message by mixing in other ideas.

This last piece completes the picture and gives us the understanding of the process that is unfolding from Pesach to Shavuot.

We begin our journey on the Seder night and the first day (in the diaspora, the first two days) of Pesach, when we focus very intensely on the miracle of the exodus from Egypt, and throughout the 40 years in the desert. These miracles show us with perfect clarity the reality of Hashem the Creator, and His love and involvement with His people. Once we have securely integrated this lesson, we can apply it to nowadays, when Hashem is in His hidden mode. We then take the next step and realize that Hashem is doing the same, even though we do not see open miracles. He is providing the mana and the water in a miraculous way, only we do not see His involvement behind the scenes. This is the lesson of the omer of barley, which also grows in a hidden miraculous way.

Imagine the scene in a typical Jewish home after the Jewish people have entered the land of Israel. A child wakes up in the morning and excitedly tells his mother,

“Ma, I’ll go out and bring in the mana this morning!”

His mother says, “You won’t find any mana outside this morning son, we are now in the land of Israel!”

“What? No mana? What will we eat?” he asks incredulously.

“That’s easy. We are going to take a kernel of wheat, place it into the ground where it will disintegrate. After a few weeks, a sprout will begin to grow from it, and soon, that sprout will turn into a strong stalk with many kernels of wheat on top of it. We will take those kernels, shell them, grind them into flour, mix that flour with water and make a dough. Then, we will let the dough rise, shape it into loaves and put them into the oven to bake. When the loaves come out of the oven, we will have delicious bread to eat!”

“WOW MA!! That’s a miracle!” he exclaims.

This is the lesson of the omer that we need to review and assimilate as we count the omer 49 consecutive nights between Pesach and Shavuot. This is a daunting concept to absorb, and we need consistent thought and learning to make it part of us.

When the Jewish people received the Torah on Sinai, the Torah tells us that they were like “one man with one heart”, completely unified in their mission as a people and completely at peace with one another. During the days between Pesach and Shavuot, the Jewish people were working on this concept as well, and they achieved their goal, as they stood unified as “one man with one heart” at Sinai.

This concept helps unify us, because when we deeply understand that everything comes from Hashem, there can be no jealousy or strife between people. If someone has more than I, I cannot be jealous of him, that’s the way Hashem wants it. If someone hurts me, since that is what Hashem decreed, I obviously deserve it; the person was only the messenger.

This special seven-week period’s holy energy returns every year and is accessible to us during these times. Let’s harness this holy energy when we count the omer this year and try to acquire this concept so that we may once again stand united as “one man with one heart” when Shavuot arrives and we receive the Torah.

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