Following their miraculous exodus, the Israelites spent the next 49 days traversing the desert terrain from the confines of Egypt to the foothills of Mt. Sinai. This marked the beginning of a journey that would forever change the course of history. They spent those 7 weeks spiritually preparing themselves—cleansing their souls—to make themselves ready to consummate their relationship with God as His chosen nation through the receiving of the Torah.
In our professional, academic, and personal lives we mark the passage of time as the weather gets warmer, as the school year ends, and as some of us prepare for a well-deserved vacation.
In our Jewish life, we find ourselves marking time in a different way. We just finished our Seders, and are now looking forward to the holiday of Shavuot, when we will commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. What connects these 2 holidays to each other is a strange and often misunderstood ritual known as S’firat Ha-Omer—The Counting of the Omer.
That's Omer, Not Homer!
We can almost feel the excitement in the air. The slow build-up from the Exodus that we celebrate on Pesach to the joyous acceptance of the Torah that will be here very soon is almost palpable. The high-impact adventure—the 10 miraculous plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea—launching the Israelites into physical freedom! Yet the miracles of Egypt were only a jump-start to the spiritual possibilities that lay ahead.
Each day we count 1 more day to another momentous occasion. The Counting of the Omer is a daily reminder of the excitement that builds as we prepare ourselves to receive the gift of Torah. So, why did God wait 50 days before giving the Torah? The answer is that they just were not ready to receive it. They needed to grow up first or they would have wasted the opportunity. They needed some day-to-day growth and a commitment to each other. That is why the days of the Omer are counted in a forward progression. In Jacob’s dream, God shows him a vision of a ladder reaching toward heaven. Spiritual growth, like climbing a ladder, must be taken one step at a time. During the holiday of Hanukkah, we add one more light in expectation of what is to come. Each additional day increases our hopes of what we are going to experience.
There is a wonderful story that illustrates that hope. One day a farmer was working in his field and heard a terrible crash and then a splash, followed by loud braying and the sounds of braying and kicking. He ran across the field to find that his most precious donkey had strayed from the barn and fallen into the well. It was a very deep one, and there was no way for the farmer to lift the donkey out of it. He called to his neighbors, who tried to tie a rope around the donkey to lift him up. For hours they tried, but in the end they failed. What could they do? One farmer suggested that each of them bring his shovel and that they bury the donkey in the well. Burying him would be better than leaving him there and listening to his braying. So, they went to work. The first shovelful of dirt smacked the donkey on the back. The donkey cried out, “God, they are going to bury me in this well.” He shook the dirt off his back and continued kicking. Another shovelful of dirt fell, then another. Each time, the donkey shook the dirt off. Soon the donkey realized that he could save himself by pulling his feet up out of the water, which was becoming mud, and stepping up; thus he could climb out of the well. Soon, all of the water had been absorbed by the dirt, and the donkey was above the water level. Dirt continued to rain down on him, and he continued to shake off each shovelful. Shovelful by shovelful, step by step, the donkey climbed out of the well that had trapped him. And then, to the surprise of the farmers, he emerged from the well and ambled off into the field.
A lot of our lives are spent succumbing to the weight of the world being shoveled on us. Everyday is an opportunity for growth and self-improvement, if we just lift ourselves a little bit higher. Ideally, at the end of the Counting of the Omer, we will have experienced a journey, our journey, of self-improvement and be ready to receive the Torah.
We are put here on earth for a specific amount of time.
The time is now. The challenge is upon us. If we thought about it, we would realize that every moment of every day we are given the opportunity to do a good deed, give to charity, influence others in a positive way, volunteer, empower others, and so much more. We have 6 more weeks until we arrive at Mt. Sinai and God graciously gives us His Torah. Will we be ready?
I'll meet you at the top!