Why is it a mitzvah to count the Omer?

8 months ago The Connections Staff 0

Benjamin Samuels// Brooklyn Heights, NY

Featured image via www.chabad.org

Although Shavuot has already passed, it is nevertheless helpful to understand the mitzvah involving counting the days leading up to Shavuot.

There are forty-nine days between the second day of Pesach and the first day of Shavuot, for which we are given one of the strangest mitzvot in all of Torah. We are not merely commanded to celebrate Shavuot on the forty-ninth day—like we are commanded to keep the Shabbos on every seventh day. We are commanded to count each day in between.

Every day, we count the Omer and engage with one of the more popular Kabbalistic traditions, which is the dividing of the forty-nine days into a grid with seven Sefirot, or divine qualities, along each axis. Each week of the Omer gets a thematic, general quality, and each day provides another quality which acts as a lens to focus the first.

There are actually ten Sefirot. But the three excluded attributes are mystical and distant, so we stick to the lower seven, which tend to be more practical—like chesed, or kindness. Why do we do this? Is chochmah (wisdom) not important or virtuous? How about binah—understanding? Could anything be more important than clearly understanding ourselves, the world and the people around us?

The Kabbalah teaches us that in the beginning of the universe, there were no Sefirot. There was only a great light—the Or Ein Sof. Just as staring at the sun reveals nothing more than light, so too an experience of this level of holiness would have been totally beyond our ability to process or separate into attributes.

But all of a sudden, the Sephirot burst into existence in a flash of divine inspiration—Atzilut, or emanation. When great artists or tzaddiks are struck by bolts of genius, they are mimicking this infinite moment of inspiration when the Sephirot appeared. Just barely further from the sun of the Or Ein Sof, these attributes were the only things discernible in the incredible flood of light. There are no objects or even ideas in this phase—only the attributes, which are infinite in every direction.

In the next stage of distance from the Or Ein Sof, in the world of Beriah, the light becomes just hazy enough to allow for separation. Where the Sefirot were infinite, these new units have finitude – but nothing else. They are the purest souls, which literally burn (Seraiphah, from which we get the word “Seraph”) because of their proximity to the divine light. They have identities, but no thoughts or emotions. Their existence is entirely consumed by the endless task of absorbing the divine energy from the Or Ein Sof.

The world of Yetzirah is where the light has dimmed just enough to allow for thoughts and emotions. The familiar angels, like Gabriel and Michael, live here, in the world of identity and will but no creation. Finally, farthest from the original light is our world, the world of concealment—the world of Assiyah. Here, there is a material reality, where G-d’s light is muted enough to allow us independence and freedom to do and believe what we choose.

Why did G-d retract the Or Ein Sof in stages, instead of allowing the holy light to permeate the entire universe? And why are we told to count only seven of the Sefirot?

Imagine standing on a mountaintop, looking out on a beautiful vista. The hills and rivers spread out below you, dappled in shade. Above you, the sun shines from between the clouds. 

Now imagine a sun, infinite in size and power, hanging in the sky like a gigantic searchlight, obliterating everything you see and transforming it into a field of blinding light. You would cry for the sun to dim again so you could see something besides whiteness. Or imagine a black sky, cloudless and starless, above the Earth. Utter blackness would cloak you on all sides. The hills would disappear again.

When the sun hits a mountain, it illuminates one side and casts the other into shadow. The only way which we can regard G-d’s majesty is like this—the painting of absence and presence which allows us to distinguish one object in creation from the next.

The Kabbalah teaches us that this is why we must count forty-nine days and no higher. We must come to understand and embrace the world we find ourselves in—one bounded with limits that, though at times seem cruel and arbitrary, create the contrast which allow us a glimpse of that which is not granted to even the highest angels—the final realization of G-d’s divine plan.