Thursday, April 24, 2014
UNDERSTANDING THE OMER
On the second day of Pesach, we are commanded to bring the Omer, a barley offering, in the Beis HaMikdash. The Torah further instructs us to count forty-nine days from this offering until the day before Shavuos. Rav Yosef Salant, ztz”l, in his work Be'er Yosef, asks a number of questions about the Omer. Among them, he notes that the Omer offering was the same volume as the other Minchah offerings: a tenth of an eiphah. Yet it is the only such offering described by the name “Omer” as opposed to simply as “a tenth of an eiphah.” What is the significance of this name? In addition, the Sefer HaChinuch states that the purpose of sefiras haOmer (counting the Omer) is to count toward the day of matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), Shavuos. We count to demonstrate our excitement about reaching this holy day. Rav Salant points out that it is difficult to see any specific connection between the Omer and the giving of the Torah. Rather, it seems that there were simply forty-nine days between the two events, and we count from one toward the other. Is there a connection between the seemingly separate occasions of the Omer offering and Shavuos? Rav Salant answers the first question by noting that the other time the word omer is used in the Torah is with regard to the manna, which the Jews received in the desert. In parashas Beshallach, the Torah states that Hashem commanded them to gather from the manna “an omer per person.” The Midrash also connects the Omer offering with the manna. It tells us that this offering was the Jews’ way of thanking Hashem for the manna. Rav Salant explains that during their time in the desert, the Jews did not have to exert any effort in order to attain their sustenance. The manna came directly from Heaven without any input from the people. Furthermore, no matter how much manna a person tried to gather, he would never be able to take more than he was allotted; rather, he would receive exactly what he needed. Because their sustenance was provided, the people were free to involve themselves in learning Torah and other forms of serving Hashem. However, when the Jews entered Eretz Yisrael, the manna stopped, and they had to earn a living through physical effort. With this change came a new danger: When a person’s toil bears fruit, his trust in Hashem may weaken, and he may attribute his success to his own hard work. To prevent this from happening, the Torah gave us the Omer offering. We offer the first produce of the season to Hashem, acknowledging that only He—rather than our own efforts—is the Source of our sustenance. By connecting the Omer to the manna through the same unit of volume, the Torah stresses that in truth there was no essential difference in how we attained our food in the desert and in Eretz Yisrael. Just as Hashem fed us in the desert, He was the Source of our sustenance once that miraculous period ended. The only difference was that now we no longer merited open miracles, so we had to exert a measure of physical effort in order to make a living. The Be'er Yosef adds a beautiful proof of the connection between the manna and the Omer. According to the Gemara in Kiddushin, the manna stopped falling when Moshe Rabbeinu died, but the people continued to eat what remained until they entered the land on 16 Nisan. We bring the Omer offering on that very date! Thus, every year, we begin counting the Omer on the day the manna stopped to further teach ourselves that the sustenance represented by the Omer is a continuation of the sustenance epitomized by the manna. Rav Salant then explains the connection between the Omer and Shavuos. Thus far, we have see how the Omer teaches us that our livelihood comes from Hashem. However, such an awareness is not sufficient. We must also realize that earning a living is not an end in itself, rather, it is a means to a greater end: having enough peace of mind that we can focus on serving Hashem without being overburdened by concerns about our livelihood. In this vein, the Torah connects the counting of the Omer to Shavuos to teach us that the purpose of the sustenance symbolized by the Omer is to take us to matan Torah, to enable us to learn and live the Torah. Thus, for forty-nine days we count the Omer, infusing ourselves with the realization that Hashem is the Source of our livelihood and that, moreover, He acts as that Source to enable us to get close to Him through learning and observing His Torah. The lessons of the manna have had great relevance throughout Jewish history. In the time of the prophet Yirmeyahu, the Jews had made working a greater priority than learning Torah. Yirmeyahu exhorted them to make Torah study their main focus. They replied by claiming that they needed to work in order to survive. He responded by bringing out a jar of manna stored in the Beis HaMikdash. He showed them that Hashem has many ways of providing man with a livelihood and that one should realize the futility of concentrating on his physical sustenance to the exclusion of his spiritual well-being. We no longer have that jar of manna to arouse us, but we still have the mitzvah of counting the Omer. It stands as a constant reminder that there is no benefit in making more than a reasonable effort to support ourselves, because ultimately Hashem is the sole Provider of our livelihood. Moreover, it teaches us that He provides for our needs so we can focus on the main avodah of growing closer to Hashem. These lessons apply differently to each individual. The amount of time one should spend working, learning, and being involved in other spiritual pursuits varies from person to person. However, during this period of sefiras HaOmer, each person should make his own accounting of the balance of his involvement in physical and spiritual matters. Does he work more than necessary? In his spare time, does he focus on spirituality or bring his work home with him? By asking such questions, a person can internalize the lessons of the Omer. May we all merit a livelihood without difficulty and ample opportunity to grow closer to Hashem.