And you shall count for yourselves… from the day on which you bring the Omer offering, seven complete weeks shall there be; until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count fifty days, and you shall proclaim that very day a holy festival (Leviticus 23:15)
A short Omer story:
I heard a story from my grandfather (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) that the holy R’ Avrohom (the son of the Maggid of Mezeritch) would direct his kavanah (intention) in the days of the Omer on Moshiach. Once he (someone?) was sick, and R’ Avrohom sent him to immerse in a mikveh and focus his intention on the corresponding “sefirah” of that day.
What is the connection between the two? Moshiach represents the time when the world will be cleansed from evil and will be “filled with Divine knowledge,” and this is the work we do in the days of the Omer: To refine ourselves and the world. It is thus fitting that when we do this work of refinement during the days of the Omer we should focus our attention on the full realization of this refinement: Moshiach.*
The Tzemach Tzedek (Biurei haZohar vol. 2 p. 945)
With all this talk about the global economic crisis and our other current challenges, things can get quite depressing. People everywhere, and our institutions in particular – the ones in which we placed our trust – have been, shall we say, humbled. Or worse: shattered.
Our leaders are scrambling to find solutions, mostly short-term, to stem the tide and stop the bleeding, so that we can then think of restoring and rebuilding the crippled infrastructures.
And where does that leave most of us today? Cowering in fear and insecurity of an unstable present and an uncertain future. Truth be told, there are many people looking for opportunities and surely finding some; there are those that have put away for a “rainy day” and are cruising along. But overall, a cloud of doom and gloom hangs over us, and affects anyone and everyone, some in very financial and tangible ways, and all others in psychological ways. Demoralization is felt in almost every circle.
So when I tell one of our supporters these days: “Now is the time to create global change; Now we have an opportunity, when our “systems” have failed us, to introduce a new spiritual consciousness and help create a new “world order”– my friend nervously laughs and shrugs me off: “No, now is a time to hunker down, lick our wounds and wait until the storm passes.”
When I hear such resignation, all my antennae go up. Everything I was ever taught, all my training, causes my juices to begin flowing and my instincts to sharpen up, telling me that this attitude is wrong. Absolutely wrong. We are not victims of circumstance. We create circumstances. No big feat to be riding high when everything is going smoothly and the economy is humming along. The challenge is can you rise to the occasion when things are not going that well and people are fearful and weak?
This is the deeper meaning of Counting the Omer: That we have the power to change ourselves and the world. That we have the ability to refine the unrefined and transform, the selfish into the selfless. That we can bring on a better world – a Messianic world, where people are driven not by self-interest and material gain, but by sublime and spiritual goals. A world where materialism is not an end in itself but a means to Divine knowledge – a world “filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”
And we therefore focus our refinement work in these days of the Omer on the ultimate refinement of the Messianic age.
Personal and global refinement may all sound so beautiful and glorious. In fact, however, these concepts are actually quite revolutionary. Let us study them a bit in more depth.
The power to change yourself; the power to change the world. These are not small statements. A scientific argument can be made that we are all hard-wired creatures, following the cardinal rule of “survival of the fittest.” Yes, personal refinement may be a very noble ideal, but humans like all animals on this earth are guided by self-preservation and self- interest. If it serves their interests they can be very kind and sensitive; but if it doesn’t, all these aspirations are nothing more than highfalutin flights of fancy…
History is a brutal testament to the capacity of people annihilating each other. And we need not look far: In our own, so-called progressive times, we see the far-reaching effects of greed and self-interest on our economy and institutions.
To claim, therefore, that we can refine our emotions and perfect our personalities, can be simply dismissed as fantasy.
And yet, that is exactly what Judaism expects and demands of us: To go against the “natural” tide of self-worship and yes, refine our very personalities. You were born with certain personality traits and genetic tendencies – now go and work hard to discipline them, refine them, channel them, direct them to higher ends. You came to earth in a certain package; you have the ability – and responsibility – to perfect the package. Like raw material, we can polish, shine and transform the raw matter into a jewel. If you have a bad habit you can break it. If you have an evil streak, you can change it. Bad can become good. If you are good you can become better. And when you become better, you can become even better than that.
Yes, my friends, that is exactly what we are capable of. Being created in the Divine Image gives us abilities and resources far beyond the ones we can ever imagine.The days of the Omer, are thus, days of majesty – a time when we celebrate the power of mortals to become something greater than their pre-destined natures.V’sefartem lochem, and you shall count for yourselves: Sefirah (count) in Hebrew also means to relate, to tell a story. It also means to shine and illuminate (like the sapphire). The additional word lochem, which seems superfluous (what would be missing without this word?), emphasizes the story and the illumination is to be directed “to yourselves,” in your material world and selfish involvements, and it is this world of (“your selves”) – your selfish emotions, drives and desires – which you must refine.
V’sefartem lochem, thus, means: You shall tell a story to your selves, you shall illuminate to your selves – to your personalities – your ability to change; to refine and transform you very characters. This is a time when we must rise to towering heights of character development and personality refinement. A period when we can and ought to change ourselves for the better. And in doing so, we tell the illuminating story, thereby illuminating a dark work around us; we demonstrate the power of the Divine in this world; the power to take a raw human being and transform him/her into a beacon of compassion and love.
This is the ultimate meaning of Moshiach – and the reason why people have always aspired to the Messianic age: It captures the dreams and highest aspirations of human beings to change themselves and the world for the better. This dream has taken on many shapes in history – many isms – but they all boil down to the firm belief that we can create a better world.
Counter to some cold scientific arguments, counter to the pessimism of some cynics, counter to the general resignation that many naturally gravitate to (especially in times of crisis and uncertainty) – we humans also have the capacity to dream and aspire to a more prefect universe. And it is this deep-rooted feeling that has actually driven human beings to improve their lives, through medicine, technology and above all (and the most difficult of them all) – in the moral standards of ourselves and our neighbors.
In the days of the Omer, we therefore concentrate and focus on Moshiach – the power to refine and transform the world into a Divine home, “filled with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”
So, in addition to the focus each day on refining the respective emotion of the day, it is also beneficial to step back and concentrate on the overarching theme of this forty-nine day Omer counting period – how our work in personal refinement is infused with the overall Messianic refinement of the universe.
Take pride that you have chosen a path – the one less traveled – of believing and working on improving your character and bettering the world around you. Feel proud that you have chosen a life of vision where everything is possible.Stand tall with the knowledge that your personal choices in how you will behave today move the universe to a better place; a step closer to Moshiach.
Go in and change yourself.
Go out and change the world!
* Though the Tzemach Tzedek doesn’t specifically spell it out, it appears that this also explains the connection with healing illness through the cleansing of the mikveh and concentrating on the corresponding day of the Omer.