“The Counting of the Omer and the Celebration of Israel’s Independence”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Emor, coincides with the celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel Independence Day, which occurs this year on Tuesday evening, May 6th and Wednesday, May 7th, 2003. Many of the laws in this week’s parasha–the role of the priesthood, the bringing of sacrifices, the bringing of the heave offerings, apply specifically to the land of Israel when the Bet Hamikdash (Temple) functions in Jerusalem.

One of the significant laws at the time of the Bet Hamikdash, was the bringing of the Omer sacrifice, which was offered on the second day of Passover. The Torah in Leviticus 23:10 states: “Kee tah’voh’oo el ha’ah’retz asher ah’nee no’tayn lah’chem, ooh’k’tzar’tem et k’tzee’rah, vah’ha’vay’tem et omer ray’sheet k’tzeer’chem el ha’cohen.” When you will enter the land that I am giving to you, and reap its harvest, you shall bring an Omer from your first harvest to the priest.

Before any of the new grain crops could be used, a special barley offering had to be brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. As the Torah commands in Leviticus 23:15-16; “Oo’sfar’tem la’chem mee’mah’chah’rat ha’shabbat… tis’p’rooh cha’mee’shim yom.” 49 days are counted in anticipation of the festival of Shavuot, when a special double loaf offering is brought, allowing the new wheat crop to be eaten.

Many reasons are provided by the commentators for the ritual of counting and offering the Omer. Clearly, offering up the new grains underscores the dependence of the human being upon Divine beneficence, that is especially important in an agrarian society. The farmer, more than anyone, realizes how dependent humankind is on the generosity of the Al-mighty. As hard as he may work, unless the Al-mighty delivers the sun, the rain and eliminates frost and pestilence, the farmer’s work will indeed be in vain. And so, like everyone else in Judaism, the farmer must acknowledge G-d, before partaking of the new crop.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch (classic commentary on the 613 commandments written in the 13th century) explains that for the generation of the Exodus, freedom from enslavement was certainly the central experience of their lives. But for the Jew in general, the most central moment is the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, which the Jewish people celebrate on Shavuot. The ancient Israelites were not freed from Egypt simply to be released from enslavement. They were not liberated to become idle people or anarchists. The People of Israel were freed specifically to make great moral and ethical contributions to the world. They were freed from Egypt in order to devote themselves to G-d and to His Torah.

And so, in order to place the proper focus on the celebration of Passover, the festival of liberation, Jews over the millennia were instructed by the Torah to count the days leading to Shavuot, starting with the second night of Passover. This counting affirms once again that only within the context of the acceptance of the Torah does Passover become meaningful.

Interestingly, there is a parallel reasoning that applies to Yom Ha’atzma’ut and the establishment of the State of Israel. The declaration of Jewish independence and the founding of the State of Israel did not occur to simply provide the Jewish people with a land of their own, as important as that is. The Jewish people were given a land of their own in order to live a moral and ethical life, to serve as an exemplar for the entire world. It is only through the centrality of Torah and Torah values that the land becomes meaningful. Otherwise, we might as well have accepted the proposal to establish the Jewish state in Uganda.

The ritual of the counting the Omer has more inherent lessons to teach. It is common practice that in instances of anticipation, people often count down. And yet, the Jewish people count up. The secular world declares: “Ten more shopping days until the holiday, 9 more shopping days until the holiday, 8 more shopping days…” At Cape Canaveral the launching of rockets is announced in a countdown to the blast-off: 9, 8, 7, 6… However, when Jews count the Omer, they count up. “Today is the first day of the Omer...today is the ninth day of the Omer, which totals one week and 2 days.” And on the final day we say: “Today is 49 days, which totals seven weeks.” The Jewish people count up because we are an optimistic nation. For many, after there are no more shopping days, and we have had our day of celebration, it is not uncommon for a post holiday depression to set in. Jews instead work up, optimistically toward the festival, savoring the very essence of the festival, even after it’s over, to reaffirm the values, ideals and teachings of the holiday. The feelings of Shavuot, and the excitement of the acceptance of the Torah, are to linger with us–for the entire year. Then, in order to re-engage those feelings, we start counting again.

So when you count this year, hold your head up high. Be positive, be joyous, be optimistic. Allow yourself to feel the thrill of victory, the victory of light over darkness, the victory of morality over immorality, and the victory of love over hate.

Happy Yom Ha’atzma’ut.

May you be blessed.