Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 31 March 2018 / 15 Nisan 5778

Sefirat HaOmer

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
ArtscrollLibrary

Sefirah: Subordinating the Sickle

We are instructed to begin the counting the Omer “the day after the Sabbath.” “Sabbath,” in this context is understood as the first day of Passover, and when the count begins, the new crop is permitted. Thus, the yearly reminder of our original impoverished state, without land or possession, also marks the date after which the new crop is permitted. The sickle could not begin to cut the new corn until after the Pesach lamb offering, and the feast with matzah consumed. Like all restraints, the prohibition of cutting the new crop taught the Jew that he is not his own master; that G-d is the only true Owner of the Land.

But when the prohibition was lifted on the sixteenth of Nissan, the Jew entered into the full enjoyment of the Land. When the Jews reached the point that other nations would consider the pinnacle — freedom, independence, land and soil, fruit and corn on its own fields — and at which other nations would stop striving and counting, the Jew is instructed to count.

We count seven weeks of seven days, up until the day celebrating the bestowal of the greatest gift, the greatest good, the Torah. It is the Torah which alone lends value and significance to freedom, independence, land and prosperity. This count impressed on the mind of the Jew: “The land which you own, the fields which bloom for you and the fruits which ripen for you — these are not your gods and your goods, these do not make you a nation nor are they the objects of your strivings…All these have been given to you for the sake of the Torah; for the sake of the Torah you possess them, and without the Torah you would lose them.” The Jew understood that his mission begins from the sickle but does not end with the sickle.

But with time, Israel stopped counting. We stopped counting up to the Torah, and began to look at freedom and abundance as its own unconditional value. As a result, we lost our land and soil, our freedom and independence.

But if the purpose of the counting was to ensure that we did not get carried away by the swing of the sickle and overrate our right to land and abundance, then why did we still need to count for two thousand years of exile, without land or abundance?

The “sickle” has taken many forms. Throughout the ages, Jews, long deprived of the right to own land, grew to grossly overrate it. So much so that they declared themselves ready to sacrifice a part of Torah for the right to settle and take root in their land. They declared themselves ready to sell the Torah for the sickle. And even when the view of Torah as an obstacle to the path of freedom and achievement was not explicit, more creative distortions abounded. For example, the unspoken, secret clause which states that the Torah’s most sacred laws have been given with the tacit reservation that they needn’t be observed if they stand in the way of political progress. As if the Torah values the sickle above itself, and readily gives way where it hinders the swinging of the sickle.

Not so! As soon as we pick up the sickle, we begin the count. For seven straight weeks we are reminded that all conquest and attainment, all land and abundance, is valuable only for the sake of Torah.

  • Sources: Collected Writings I, Iyar I, pp. 113-116

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