In our professional, academic and personal lives we mark the passage of time as the weather gets warmer, as the school year ends or as we prepare for a vacation that we are planning to take.
In Jewish time, we find ourselves marking time in a very different way. We just finished Passover several weeks ago and we are looking forward to the holiday of Shavuot when we will commemorate the giving of the Torah to Moses and the children of Israel. What connects these two holidays to each other is a strange and often misunderstood ritual known as S’firat Ha-Omer—the counting of the Omer—when we count the 49 days from the second night of Passover until the first night of Shavuot.
To understand the relationship between these two holidays and the ritual that connects them, we need to ask two questions: 1) what is the counting of the Omer? and 2) why are these two holidays linked to each other?
The counting of the Omer is commanded in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, where it says
Then from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) offering—the day after the Sabbath (meaning Passover)—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week (Leviticus 23:15).
The Torah is describing the original agricultural ritual that would have been performed during the time of the Temple when Israelites would bring a special grain offering for each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. Scholars tell us that the counting of the Omer, along with Passover and Shavuot, were all originally centered on these types of agricultural themes and rituals. As Judaism has developed, they have also come to be linked with the watershed events of the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Law at Mt. Sinai.
So while this may explain our first question about the meaning of the counting of the Omer, it does not help us to understand the second question regarding the thematic connection between Passover and Shavuot.
Why would Judaism link the moment of our national liberation and freedom with a holiday that seems to commemorate the opposite of freedom, the day we received the Law that regulates all areas of religious, economic and civil life?
Dr. L. Grunfeld, in his famous essay about the three-fold meaning of keeping Kosher, offers one powerful answer to this question.
To the superficial observer it may seem that people who do not obey the law are freer than law abiding people, because they can follow their own inclinations. In reality, however, such people are subject to the most cruel bondage: they are slaves of their own instincts, impulse, and desires.
In other words, it is only through law that we really become free. This notion works on at least three levels. First, law helps us to create freedom in time. By regulating, marking and dividing the moments of our days, weeks and years, law has the capacity to free us from the isolation that come from living only in the moment. Rather than simply responding to each and every shift in an ever changing world, law helps us to live with a measure of constancy and the ability and perspective to see our lives from a panoramic view point. Second, law frees us from the personal isolation of having to make every choice by ourselves as if we were alone. By living with others within the context of external legal boundaries, we are pushed to create and live in communities and to work together to define and manage the world in which we live. Third, law, with its ability to create safety and order, frees us from the fickle and self-serving choices of all those around us. Without law to regulate our communities and our neighbors, we would never be free from their wants and desires.
In each of these three ways, law helps us to gain freedom in a way that seems counterintuitive—the same law that limits and controls us, also frees us from the “slavery” of being bound only to our own instincts, impulses and desires.
Here then is the link between Passover and Shavuot. We count the 49 days of the Omer in order to count up from the political freedom we gained in the Exodus to the more profound and universal freedom we gained when we accepted the Law. In other words, the Exodus was only the first step in the Israelite emancipation. True freedom only comes with responsibility, with the giving of the law on Shavuot.
May the upcoming weeks during the counting of the Omer be a time for each of us to renew our commitment to the laws that help us find the kind of freedom that guides us toward a life that is filled with more contentment, more love and more justice.
Prepared by Rabbi Mike Uram, assistant director and campus rabbi at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel.
Additional commentaries and text studies on Emor at MyJewishLearning.com.