“The Counting of the Omer and the Celebration of Israel’s Independence”
(updated and revised from Emor 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Emor, coincides with the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, which occurs this year on Monday evening, May 13th and Tuesday, May 14, 2024.

The celebration of Israel’s 76th anniversary dovetails nicely with parashat Emor since many of the laws in this week’s parasha–the role of the priesthood, the bringing of sacrifices and the heave offerings, apply specifically to the land of Israel when the Bet Hamikdash (Holy Temple) stands and functions in Jerusalem.

One of the significant laws at the time of the Bet Hamikdash, was the bringing of the Omer offering, which was first brought on the second day of Passover. The Torah, in Leviticus 23:10, states: כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם, וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת קְצִירָהּ, וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם אֶל הַכֹּהֵן, 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 may 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; וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת…תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם, 49 days are to be 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 proposed by the commentators for the ritual of counting and offering the Omer. Clearly, offering up the new grains underscores the dependence of human beings upon Divine beneficence, a dependence that is especially important in an agrarian society. The farmer, more than any other citizen, 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 explains that for the generation of the Exodus, freedom from enslavement was certainly the central experience of their lives. But for Jews in general, and later generations of Jews, 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, starting on Passover, the days and weeks 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’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) 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 study of Torah and the practice of 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 counting the Omer has more inherent lessons to teach about life and Judaism’s perspective on life. It is common practice, that in instances of anticipation, people often count down. And yet, the Jewish people count up. The secular world announces: “Ten more shopping days until the holiday, 9 more shopping days until the holiday, 8 more shopping days…” At Cape Canaveral the launching of space 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 the day of celebration has passed, 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 intended to linger with us–for the entire year. Then, in order to re-engage those feelings, we start counting again.

So, when you count the Omer 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’atzmaut.

May you be blessed.