The Torah Count
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
We spend our lives obsessed with counting. We are either counting the days and years for a negative experience to end or counting the days towards a perceived positive and pleasurable experience, such as: Shabbat, an annual vacation, the kids coming home, or a visit from relatives. We count our money, years, successes, and failures. We constantly count almost everything.
Now, we count the days of the Omer as the Torah commands us: “And ye shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that ye brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; even unto the morrow after the seventh week shall ye number fifty days; and ye shall present a new meal-offering unto the LORD.” (Leviticus 23, 15-16)
There seems to be a contradiction in the above verses. First, the Torah instructs us to count seven complete weeks (which is 49 days). Then, the Torah states: “You shall count 50 days.” Logically, the resolution is simple: count 50 days—by counting 50 days, one would have counted seven complete weeks as well as 50 days. Our tradition, however, does not solve this problem in this way. We count only 49 days and do not count the 50th day, Shavuot, at all.
Several scholars (including Rashi and the Rosh Rabeinu Asher) have offered a solution. We will, however, focus on the solution provided by the great 19th and early 20th century scholar, Rabbi Meir Simcha Hakohen of Dvinsk, in his book Meshech Chochmah. Rabbi Meir explains that the purpose of counting something in Torah thought is to make it unique, to give it meaning, and to make it count. The first 49 days, in and of themselves, are no different from any other days. In order to make these 49 days unique, we have to verbally count them and place them in the context of the Omer offering and our process of growth towards receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Shavuot, on the other hand, is a unique day—it is a Yom Tov with unique Temple offerings and prayers. Therefore, effectively, we are counting the fiftieth day (even without verbally doing so). What we do on the day of Shavuot makes it special and makes it count.
I believe herein lies a fundamental practical lesson for our lives. The counting we are constantly obsessed with, counting the days and years for a negative experience to end or counting the days towards a perceived positive and pleasurable experience, is largely inconsistent with the Torah’s idea of counting. Our counting only serves to keep us living in the past or hoping for the future and prevents us from enriching our present, the here and now.
Sefirat Ha’omer (Counting of the Omer) and Shavuot teach us that the only valuable and worthwhile counting is the counting that makes the here and the now unique, important, and filled with spiritual content. While the destination, Shavuot, is of fundamental importance, the journey towards that goal must also be appreciated and infused with spiritual content. We count each day to remind us to utilize the opportunities for spiritual growth every step of the way. The true destination is only attainable when each day is counted as its very own destination.
The western concept is one of counting days, the Torah concept, on the other hand, is one of making days count.