Parshat Emor: The Spiritual & the Physical

As Lag BaOmer approaches, how appropriate that this week’s parsha, Emor, contains the biblical source for Sefirat HaOmer. What is the purpose of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot? 

In rabbinic literature, these two holidays are characterized by an emphasis on the historic religious events of the Exodus and Matan Torah. However, in Torah, these times are associated with material matters as well: it begins with the barley harvest and ends with the wheat harvest in the land of Israel. Why does the Omer period contain this duality of the physical-agricultural and the spiritual-historical? The Abudarham teaches that we count so that we don’t get distracted by the harvest and forget to focus on Shavuot and Matan Torah. We mustn’t let the physical distract us from remembering the spiritual. Sforno too, highlights the physical-spiritual connection: the sefira each day is like a tefilla, an expression of gratitude to God for the harvest, which we mustn’t take for granted, culminating in Shavuot, a.k.a “chag ha-bikkurim.” 

These interpretations highlight that Sefirat HaOmer teaches the interconnectivity and necessity of the spiritual and the physical. This is also a central theme in the Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who has become associated with Lag BaOmer. At first, Rashbi valued Torah study above everything and derided material things. He criticized Roman structures such as bath houses and bridges, leading to his hiding in a cave for thirteen years. When he eventually emerged somewhat changed, he decided to make a tikkun (fix) in this world. 

The message of Rashbi’s story and commentaries on Sefirat HaOmer, is that we are not meant to live in a wholly spiritual existence, disengaged from the world. At the same time a purely physical existence is devoid of meaning. The Torah approach is to engage in and elevate the earthly by thanking God for such gifts. Rashbi reminds us to look around and ask, “how can I make a tikkun here and now?” Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Emor: Counting and Connection

So much of what counts in today’s world is what can be measured. The Torah also places value on a type of metric – quantifying time by counting days or years in various contexts, including Sefirat HaOmer, the period we are currently in. What is the significance of counting the Omer? 

The source of this mitzvah is found in parshat Emor. Based on the words “u’sefartem lachem,” the midrash Sifra teaches that the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer falls on each individual. The sources discuss whether this requirement applies to women as well. While women were once generally considered exempt from Sefirat HaOmer, today most poskim hold that women may take on this mitzvah fully, with a bracha. Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch also mentions a remnant of a custom where some women refrained from work each night of the Omer till the morning. Perhaps historically, this was a unique way for women to take part in the mitzvah. If a woman wishes to take on Sefirat HaOmer she too becomes part of the command “lachem,” to count for yourselves.

Why is the counting up to each individual? Various commentaries understand the purpose of counting from the day after Pesach until Shavuot as potential for transformation within a person. The Sefer Hachinuch explains that this mirrors the process which Am Yisrael experienced starting from yetziat mitzrayim and culminating with Matan Torah on Shavuot. When each individual counts the omer, s/he too is going through a process of preparation to receive and recommit to the Torah and its mitzvot and values.

When the Torah commands us to count the Omer it is not just to mark the passage of time, but to emphasize the potential each day and year brings, the imperative to make them count. Sefirat HaOmer in particular, invites all individuals to be counted in each year and to find their connection to Torah. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson