The Rabbi's Study

Counting Up To Sinai

It has been nearly a month since the last time I shared some insights before Shabbat, and I am glad to get back into the habit of sharing something with you weekly. What a perfect time to get back into the swing of things, this season of the counting of the omer, and what a perfect week to do so with Parashat Emor.
Parashat Emor contains the commandment to count the omer:

וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃

Count for yourselves from the day after [the Passover festival], from the day which you will bring the waved omer, seven weeks which will be complete. -Lev. 23:15

While it is interesting to understand how we came to an understanding that the phrase ha’shabbat in this verse does not refer to Shabbat itself, but to the Passover festival, we will not discuss this at length here, so just take it from me that the Jewish tradition has understood that to be the case for generations and generations, and for good reason. What I am more interested in right now is this language of “for yourselves.” This is reminiscent of the commandment to keep a calendar, “This month will be for you…,” (Ex. 12:1). Why is God commanding us to count is a question to be asked, but specifically, what is meant by being required to count for ourselves? Seemingly, there is some inherent personal value or benefit in this counting, so what is it?

The Or Ha’Hayim, Rabbi Hayim ibn Atar, an 18th century Moroccan mystic whom we’ve learned from in these emails before, has a wonderful insight derived from the Zohar. He teaches that, “From the perspective (taught in the Zohar) that we were in the ritual-impurity of Mitzrayim, Hashem wanted to purify this nation, so they are judged according to the law of niddah (the laws regarding a menstruant woman), who has to count seven days in ritual-purity (before being intimate with her husband). So Hashem commanded that they should count seven weeks and then they would be fit (kosher) to enter like a bride under the huppah. Just like there are seven days (for niddah), there are seven weeks (for the counting of the omer between Passover – leaving Mitzrayim – and Shavuot – standing at Sinai.”

The Zohar teaches of the “50 gates of ritual impurity” and the “50 gates of ritual purity.” The basic idea being that the experience of servitude in Mitzrayim, of living in narrowness, transformed the people substantially such that they were unable to see their own value. In order to spiritually cleanse from that “ritual impurity,” we move through the 49 days of the omer to be prepared to stand on the 50th day, Shavuot, and receive the Torah and be kosher, so to speak, to stand in the presence of God’s revelation. This is what the Zohar refers to as the “50 gates of ritual purity”: the 49 days of the omer and the 50th day of Shavuot.

The image inherent in comparing our ability to stand at Sinai to that of a bride entering the huppah is not only beautiful, it is incredibly instructive to understand the transformative power imagined by the mystical tradition of this time counting the days up to Sinai. It cannot be said that God needed to reveal the Torah at Sinai, we cannot say that God needs anything at all! Rather, it is we who need the experience to understand that we are deserving of this union, we are deserving to stand with God under the huppah, we count these days to meditate on the fact that we, as individuals and as a people, have inherent value. This is also why we do not count down, but rather count up – to remind ourselves that every step forward is a symbol of progress, and the more we progress in our own spiritual evolution the more value have the opportunity to find in our lives and the world around us.

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