Purification and Elevation

Nov 26, 2014

Based on the Nesivos Shalom on Sefirat Haomer (vol. 2, pp. 311-314)

Sefirat Haomer’s place in the Jewish calendar is not accidental. It is sandwiched between Pesach and Shavuot, and each of the holidays leaves its imprint on the forty-nine day period, revealing its dual nature. Sefirat Haomer is both

1. a continuation of the Exodus from Egypt on Pesach and
2. a preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot.

This dual nature is also expressed in the prayer traditionally said after counting the Omer. This prayer, a key to understanding the goals and function of the Omer, refers to two aspects of the Sefira. We pray “. . . to purify us from our shells and impurities . . . . so that I can become pure and holy with elevated holiness.” The first goal, removing our impurities, is a continuation of the Exodus, where G-d extracted us from ancient Egypt’s immorality and idolatry. The second, elevating ourselves in holiness, culminates in being ready to receive the Torah on Shavuot.

Leaving Egypt — Purification
There is a crucial assumption behind the Pesach aspect of the Omer — that the Exodus from Egypt is not a one-time event, but a fifty-step process that opens with the powerful event of Yetziat Mitzraim. The mystical works point out that the Exodus from Egypt is mentioned fifty times in the Torah because there are fifty aspects of leaving Egypt (Egypt the concept and culture, not only the place). We must leave Egypt with each aspect of our character. This is also referred to in the prayer we say after counting the Omer, where we refer to the particular character trait that corresponds to a given day of the Omer – chesed (lovingkindness), gevura (might), etc. and all of their permutations and combinations.

Rav Moshe Eliakim Bria zt”l of Koznitz (in the Haggada Mateh Moshe) describes the particulars of the process in more detail. On the first day of Pesach G-d shines a very bright light upon us, even though we are not necessarily ready to integrate it yet. Afterwards this powerful illumination is removed and we must “gather the lights” little by little by ourselves. Eventually we get back to the place we suddenly found ourselves on the first day of Pesach. It takes us forty-nine more days to regain Yetziat Mitzraim step by step. There is first a general, all-encompassing Exodus and then it is followed by forty-nine specific ones.

Preparing for Shavuot — Elevation
The second aspect of Sefirat Haomer is preparation for Shavuot and receiving the Torah. The Sefira period is devoted to perfecting character (seven general character traits and each one’s particular variations), and according to Rav Chaim Vital, zt”l, perfecting character is the “throne” or “chariot” for the Torah. Without proper character the Torah is not able to rest on a person.

Good character was summed up by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai’s student Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh as having a good heart, a “leiv tov.” The numerical equivalent (gematria) of “leiv tov” is forty-nine. The heart is the source of all forty-nine characteristics. The period of Sefirat Haomer is dedicated to developing a good heart.

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