5761 - #29


Vayikra 23:15,16 states that you should count 49 days from the second day of Pesach until the holiday of Shavuot. The Zohar Chadash1 states: "When the Children of Israel were in Egypt, they became defiled by all manner of impurity until they sank to the forty-ninth degree of spiritual uncleanliness...When we count the forty-nine days of the Omer from the second night of the festival, it reminds us that each day marks a step away from the defilement of Egypt and a step towards spiritual purity."
The Omer is a time that marks spiritual growth. When we think about the nature of spiritual growth, works such as Mesilat Yesharim
2 or thoughts such as those presented by Ramban, Vayikra 19:2 come to mind. Spiritual growth is generally connected with a separation from the physical world. It is marked with a removal or control of desire and a goal of a contemplative life. While these ideas clearly find expression within the literature of Torah, there are other concepts presented within the literature that change this simple understanding of spiritual growth. One such idea is found in connection to the Omer.
Vayikra 23:17 states that on the holiday of Shavuot, we are commanded to bring the lechem panim, a meal offering consisting of two loaves of leavened bread. Meal offerings are usually matzah; in fact it is generally forbidden to bring chametz, leaven, on the alter.
3 This bringing of chametz on Shavuot stands out. Many commentators approach this issue by comparing the concepts connected to chametz with the concepts connected to matzah. Matzah is generally perceived to be a more spiritual food; the absence of leaven is compared to an absence of the yetzer hara, the "evil" inclination.4 Chametz, as such, is considered to be a more materialistic food. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Vayikra 7:11 ties chametz to both a sense of greater material well-being and of independence.5 It is no wonder that sacrifices should come from matzah thereby reflecting a commitment to God and a removal of materialism. Yet, on the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah, we bring chametz?
The Omer counting further intensifies the question. The bringing of chametz on Shavuot is not just seen in relation to other sacrifices but is also seen in connection to Pesach. On Pesach we eat matzah. This is understood to represent our commitment to God and spiritual growth as we mark the creation of our nation. Then on Shavuot, we bring chametz. We move from matzah to chametz. The general understanding of spiritual growth would be more readily portrayed as a movement from chametz to matzah. The forty-nine days of the Omer, however, counts a movement, a process of spiritual growth from matzah to chametz.
A perusal of the Mesilat Yesharim would indicate that it presents the generally understood process of spiritual growth. That is until its last chapter. In Midat HaKedusha,
6 Ramchal presents a new level that incorporates the physical; he declares that one achieves holiness when one relates to the physical world with purity. Separation from the world is not the goal. The human being is to be involved in the world. This is indicated by the connection of the harvest to the festivals. There is purpose in developing this world. This is especially evident on Shavuot when we bring the first fruits, celebrate our labours and God’s bounty. A person not involved in this world could not celebrate Shavuot to its fullest. A person not involved in this world is lacking in the ability to relate to Hashem for this person is not able to appreciate the benefits and pleasures of existence and thereby not able to thank God properly. The Stoic also cannot truly learn from his existence for such a person is not correctly concerned about potential pitfalls of life that we ask God to protect us from. Only someone who can feel, who desires, can understand the lessons of life and relate to God to the fullest. But a correct understanding of materialism and the world is not easy to achieve. First one must separate, achieve the lesson of matzah. Only then can one reach for the higher level symbolized by the chametz of Shavuot. While Mesilat Yesharim devotes the vast majority of its pages to the first process of spiritual growth - the movement from materialism - and only little to the level of kedusha which incorporates the physical in a holy manner, one must still recognize that this latter process also demands effort and time.
We thus have two processes of spiritual growth. One is the initial one - the movement from chametz to matzah. that is embodied not only in Pesach but in our preparation for Pesach. We have to remove ourselves from the dominion of our drives and passions. We cannot let material drives overcome us and direct us. But once we achieve this level, we must understand that there is another process that is also necessary. That is embodied in the Omer, the movement from Pesach to Shavuot, from matzah to chametz. We must learn to use the physical parts of our being to achieve unity of self and life. This also demands work and intensity over time. The count of the Omer is a time period to think about who we are, how we relate to God. It is a time period to contemplate not only our connection to Torah but what we must undertake within ourselves to ensure that this connection achieves its maximum potential. But this contemplation must be undertaken with the recognition that the goal of Torah is not a removal from the world but an involvement in the world. We must separate in order to see and understand the objective but the objective is still human beings connected to physical existence creating a prime model of life in this world. The Omer period, the count of 49 days, offers us the opportunity to contemplate our role in the world. The spiritual growth of the Omer culminates with the acceptance of the Blueprint of Life by the Jewish People. We must spend this time to learn how to read the Blueprint.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 As quoted in Rabbi Eliyahu KiTov, The Book of Our Heritage, Nisan - Pesach and Omer

2 by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato.

3 See Vayikra 2:11.

4 See my The Tree of Knowledge, Nishma Journal 7,8,9 for a further investigation of the yetzer hara

5 See also Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch 2:11,12.

6 The last chapter of Mesilat Yesharim.

Return to top