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