U’Sefartem Lachem MiMacharas HaShabbos
A synopsis of theMaamar found in
THE COMMANDMENT, performed each year at this season, to“count the Omer” - to count the days between Passover and Shavuos - isfound in this week’s Torah portion. Weare told that from the day the “wave offering,” the Omer, was brought(on the second day of Passover) we should count each day for forty-nine days,which brings us right to the holiday of Shavuos on the fiftieth day.
The Hebrew word for “and you shall count” is u’sefartem,which also denotes “shining, brilliance,” as in the phrase (Ezekiel 1:26),“[gem]stone sapir” - translated “sapphire” in English. The termdescribing the ten principal expressions of Divine manifestation, known inmystical literature as the ten s’firos, also bears this meaning. Theimplication is that the mitzvah of s’firas haOmer - counting the Omer- draws down upon us the influence of the ten s’firos, causes them to“shine” upon us.
In order to appreciate some of the inner significance ofthis commandment, we must bear in mind what the holidays of Passover andShavuos are all about.
Passover, the holiday upon which G-d redeemed the Jewsfrom Egyptian bondage and exile, and Shavuos, which marks the day the newlyfreed nation stood at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G-d,are connected by the intervening forty-nine day period of the count, called s’firah(count) in Hebrew. The s’firahrepresents not only the Jews’ anxious counting down of the remaining days untilthe great gift of the Torah would be presented; the count is itselfsignificant, and even necessary for the Torah to be given at all.
The reason for this, and also the significance of the Omer(wave-offering) itself, will be understood in light of the following:
Together, Passover and Shavuos are an instance of a commonspiritual pattern: first there is a “running forth,” followed by a “comingback.” That is, G-d wants there to be a “give-and-take” relationship betweenHimself and the Jews, a relationship characterized by our own striving toinitiate a closer attachment to G-d through performance of the Torah andmitzvos. Only then, after we haveourselves made advances in this direction, does G-d reciprocate by aiding usalong and actively drawing us closer to Him. (The Hebrew terms for this, ratzohand shov, meaning “running forth” and “coming back” respectively, arebased upon Ezekiel 1:14, where the concept is mystically alluded to. See alsothe synopses of the discourses Vayomer Elokim El Moshe (on the Torahportion Va’eira), towards the end, and Sos Tasis V’Sagel Ha’akara(on the Torah portion Tazria).)
The two holidays under discussion are an example of this.On Passover, we Jews went forth from the land of Egypt on our way to worshipG-d. One of the defining features of the Exodus was the great haste with whichit took place - literally “running forth” - as it is written (Exodus 12:11),“You shall eat [the Passover sacrifice] in haste,” and (Deuteronomy 16:13) “Foryou left in haste.” Because we ran forth to commit ourselves to G-d and receivethe Torah, we merited G-d’s “reciprocation” - the “return” aspect of the“running and returning” dynamic - His revealing Himself to us at Mount Sinai.This event was characterized by G-d “coming down,” so to speak, to our level,as it says (Exodus 19:20), “And G-d came down onto Mount Sinai.”
Now, the Torah is of eternal relevance: there is a livinglesson to be learned, at all times and by every individual, from its everyaspect. This is especially so regarding the Exodus from Egypt. It is written(Deuteronomy 16:3), “So that you will remember the day you left the land ofEgypt all the days of your life”; our sages have likewise declared (P’sachim116b), “in every generation [in fact, every day] a person is obligated to viewthemselves as though they [just] left Egypt.” This consciousness of the Exodus,this awareness of its personal relevance to each and every one of us, isaccomplished through prayer.
Specifically, the arrangement of our morning prayers, fromthe portion beginning Baruch She’amar through the Shema prayer,is designed to arouse within us a heartfelt love of G-d - as we continueimmediately after reciting the first verse of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel,G-d is our G-d, G-d is One”), “And you shall love G-d, your G-d, with all yourheart and with all your soul and with all your might.” These sections bring outour love for G-d because they deal with His greatness, and how (Nechemia 9:6),“the hosts of Heaven bow to You,” as we recite (in the blessing Yotzer),“and the [spiritual beings known as] Ofanim and the holy creatures, withgreat fanfare, lift themselves up opposite the seraphim [seraphs],opposite whom they praise [G-d] and proclaim: Blessed is the Glory of G-d fromHis place.” Furthermore, “the [heavenly] creatures sweat from the labor of[carrying] the throne,” and “a thousand thousands and ten-thousandten-thousands served Him” (paraphrasing Daniel 7:10) - and all these heavenlyhosts are in a constant state of bitul (utter deference, negation ofself) before G-d.
All this is, as the Psalmist puts it (Psalms 145:12), “tomake known to the children of man His mighty acts, and the glorious splendor ofHis kingdom.” In other words, by contemplating the awesome majesty of G-d andhow even the countless hosts of unimaginably great and mighty angels are asnothing before Him, we glimpse some inkling of G-d’s majesty, as expressed bythe verse (Psalms 145:13), “Your sovereignty is a sovereignty over all worlds.”As explained elsewhere, “sovereignty” (malchus)refers to that abstract quality by which a king reigns, but which is notactually a part of the king himself in any way. The king’s physical self is inthe splendid isolation of his throne room, but by his word, his command, herules the kingdom; his wishes are carried out throughout his realm even absenthis physical presence or participation. Thus, in Jewish mysticism, the“sovereignty” of G-d, His attribute of malchus, signifies that quality bywhich G-d’s will (for example, that the universe and all it contains be broughtinto existence) is carried out - but this creative force of the universe isactually not even of G-d’s “essence” or “self” (so to speak) at all.
The heavenly hostssense their own nothingness before G-d because they perceive that all worlds,spiritual and physical, are nothing more than a manifestation of G-d’sattribute of malchus, G-d’s “word” or command, and do not reflectanything of G-d Himself. We, too, by deeply reflecting upon these things asdescribed in our prayers, should automatically arouse within ourselves anappreciation for G-d’s greatness and an earnest longing to break free of ourphysical limitations and attach ourselves to none other than G-d Himself. This isthe “running forth” we strive to experience at prayer: the yearning to leaveour physical existence behind and unite with G-d alone. It is the dailyexpression of our “exodus from Egypt,” for the Hebrew word for “Egypt,” mitzrayim,is spelled identically with, and alludes to, the word for “boundaries,limitations.” This is why the Exodus from Egypt, or the limitations of ourworldly existence, is mentioned at the conclusion of the Shema prayer,which is the expression of this boundless love for G-d.
Our sages taught (B’rachos 26b), “the prayers wereestablished by [our] Patriarchs.” In addition to its plain meaning, thisteaching alludes to the content of our prayers. For our Patriarchs, Abraham,Isaac and Jacob, are each identified with a particular quality in the serviceof G-d: Abraham, with love of G-d (an expression of that faculty of the soulthat corresponds to the Divine attribute, or s’firah, known as chesed,or “kindness”); Isaac, with fear of G-d (an expression of the faculty of g’vurah,or “strength”); and Jacob, with compassion (an expression of the s’firahknown as tiferes, or “beauty”). The text of our prayers is arrangedaround verses touching upon all three.
Love of G-d is aroused during prayer, as explained above,through contemplation of verses such as those mentioned, leading to the Shema’s“And you shall love G-d.” Fear and awe of G-d are likewise aroused bycontemplating the verses in our prayers appropriate to those themes. And as forcompassion, that comes into play where a person, despite their sincere effortsto concentrate on his or her prayers and to feel true love and fear of G-d, isnot getting anywhere, so to speak.
The person is so steeped in a worldly mindset and soaccustomed to thinking of themself as “number one” that their heart has becomelike a stone, utterly insensitive to spiritual matters.
Arousing compassion on our soul in this way has the powerto rekindle that “lost” feeling of love for G-d within us. This concept ishinted at in the verse (Isaiah 29:22), “to Jacob who redeemed Abraham.” Asmentioned above, our Patriarch Jacob is identified with the G-dly attribute ofcompassion, and Abraham with love; this verse is telling us that Jacob –compassion – is the key to unlocking and redeeming our lost attribute ofAbraham – love for G-d.
In sum, the Exodus from Egypt on Passover symbolized ourbreaking free of our worldly inhibitions and limitations with respect to theservice of G-d, after which we received G-d’s reciprocal “coming down,” as itwere, to grant us the Torah on Shavuos. And in each and every generation, wemust all experience this in our own daily lives, which is accomplished byarousing yearning for G-d during prayer, to the point we want to leave our ownpersonal boundaries and “run forth” to Him.
The problem is – it’s not so simple. The reason is that(as taught elsewhere) each Jewish person has two souls: one, known as the“G-dly soul” or nefesh haElokis, is literally a part of G-d and seeksonly spiritual pursuits; the other, called the “animal soul” or nefeshhabahamis, is responsible for animating our physical bodies and is thesource of all worldly temptations and desires. All that we have said aboveabout arousing a longing for G-d and experiencing our own personal exodus from“Egypt” – worldly constraints in our worship of G-d – is only effective for theG-dly soul. That is the soul which is sensitive to spirituality and responsiveto the sort of prayerful meditation described above. The animal soul, however,just isn’t “into” these things, and is unaffected by the “exodus” – both on anindividual level and, in a broader sense, with respect to the Jewish people asa whole. When the Jews actually left Egypt during historic Passover, it waslikewise only their G-dly souls and not their animal souls that were inspired.For G-d Himself to “come down” to our level, though, no such “half-hearted”commitment would do. We had to somehow inspire and elevate even our animalsouls to appreciate spirituality and G-dliness before we would be fit toreceive the Torah on Shavuos.
This is where the Omer – the waving of the Omeroffering and the counting of the Omer period – comes in.
Regarding the “wave offering,” we are told (Leviticus23:11), “and he [the priest] shall wave the Omer before G-d so that itbe favorable for you; on the morrow of the Sabbath shall the priest wave it.”The word “omer” is actually a unit of volume; the reference is to thefirst-fruits of the harvest, an omer of which had to be consecrated untoG-d, as commanded in the previous verse. This was done by the priest physicallywaving that omer of first-fruits, which, the Talmud teaches (Menachos84a), consisted of barley.
The significance of this is that the act of raising up andconsecrating the omer of barley to G-d symbolizes our own consecrationof the animal soul, since barley itself is cattle fodder. On a deeper,mystical, level, the omer offering symbolizes the elevation andconsecration of the entire world to the service of G-d. This is because, in thespiritual realms as well, there is a counterpart to the “animal” which eats“barley.”
As explained elsewhere (see the synopsis of the discourse V’HineiAnachnu M’Almim Alumim on the Torah portion Vayeishev), it is partof the spiritual structure of the universe that fragments or “sparks” ofG-dliness (so to speak) are embodied within the substance of the physicalworld, and it is our task to elevate these back to their heavenly source byutilizing material things for holy purposes. When we do this, the sparks ofholiness are raised up to the spiritual level known as malchus of Atzilus,which is the limit of human capability. However, once we have done all we canon our part, the sparks are drawn from there even higher by a still loftierspiritual level.
The prophet Ezekiel had a vision (Ezekiel chapter 1)representing something of the “inhabitants” of Heaven and the spiritual levelsthey symbolize. Among other things, Ezekiel’s vision tells of four creatureswith the faces of a man, a lion, an ox and an eagle, and that above thecreatures there was “the likeness of a firmament.” One characteristic of cattle(the Hebrew word used here for “animals” particularly signifies “cattle”) isthat they eat constantly. Jewish mysticism interprets these “animals” as areference to the spiritual source of our own animal souls; “barley” – thatwhich is consumed and absorbed by actual cattle – represents the “food” of thespiritual “animals,” i.e., the sparks of holiness which are constantly absorbedand elevated.
The likeness of a firmament above the heavenly cattlesymbolizes the spiritual level mentioned above, malchus of Atzilus– the level to which all the “barley,” or sparks of holiness, elevated by ourown spiritual activities is raised. This higher level is mystically called the“great cattle” (beheima rabba), and is identified with the Divine nameof 52 letters, numerically equivalent to the Hebrew word for “cattle,” beheima.Thus, the image of cattle – which always eat – with a “firmament” stretchedabove them represents our actions in consuming, or “eating,” the materialthings of this world for higher, spiritual, purposes, and our elevating thesparks of holiness within them to the level of malchus of Atzilus.This is the deeper symbolism of the waving of the measure of barley known asthe omer.
Now, we said above that malchus of Atzilus,the limit of how high we can elevate the holy sparks, is nevertheless not wherethey remain due to the even higher spiritual level which sort of “reaches down”and pulls them farther up. Similarly, the omer was raised up by asuperior level, that represented by the kohen, or priest, for the kohenderives from the spiritual level known as chesed, which is superior to malchus.That is also why the omer was offered up “on the morrow of the Sabbath,”and “before G-d”: both of these expressions allude to a spiritual level evenhigher than those symbolized by the Sabbath and by the name of G-d, the loftylevel to which our elevated sparks are ultimately raised.
We have thus explained, in a general way, that the wavingof the omer offering is symbolic of the elevation of our animal soul,necessary for us to merit that G-d should come and meet us, so to speak, togive us the Torah on Shavuos. In a more specific way, this is accomplishedthrough the counting of the 49 days of the omer period.
For the animal soul has seven emotional attributes, eachof which is itself a composite of all seven. They parallel, and are called bythe same names as, the seven “emotional” attributes of G-d (allegoricallyspeaking), or s’firos: chesed (kindness); g’vurah(severity); tiferes (beauty); netzach (constancy, victory); hod(splendor); y’sod (foundation, connection); and malchus(sovereignty). Since they are composites, we may speak of the chesedaspect of chesed, the g’vurah aspect of chesed, and so onall the way through the malchus aspect of malchus, giving a totalof 49 specific emotional attributes of the animal soul.
And that is the inner implication of the phrase “and youshall count (u’sefartem) for yourselves.” Not only are we literallycounting these days, but in addition, we are eliciting from above the influenceof the Divine attributes (s’firos), which shine upon us.