Real change -- altering our bad personality traits, moving away from self destructive behaviors and developing good spiritual habits -- takes time. It is because of this recognition that we do not leap from Passover – leaving Egypt, to Shavuot -- receiving the Torah. Instead we move, step by step, day by day, towards our goal.
From the second night of Passover, Jews begin counting the 49 days of the Omer. Unlike most "counts," like a countdown at Cape Canaveral or the radio countdown on the Top 40, we count up. This is because we're interested not just in the event at the end of the countdown -- celebrating our receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai -- but also in the counting itself.
The 49 days of the Omer are like 49 rungs of a ladder -- small, incremental steps towards a critical goal. This step-by-step motion moved our ancestors away from the slave mentalities that had been forced into them from 200 years of slavery in Egypt. Our ancestors internalized the voices of their oppressors and in many ways forgot what it was like to live lives full of choice and hope. As slaves, man's defining attribute of free will was denied to us.
After our awe-inspiring departure from Egypt, the Creator had us spend 49 days moving each day a little further away from the lives of drones to full-fledged, autonomous individuals who could make their own choices. Each day counted brought us closer to being truly free, not just physically (as we were the moment the Egyptian army was drowned beneath the waves), but spiritually and intellectually. When the Jewish people counted out seven weeks after the exodus from the land of Egpyt, known in Hebrew as Mitzryaim or "narrowness," we were able to divorce ourselves from our old lifestyles and embrace our choice of the Torah.
Real change takes time and determination.
Neither we nor our ancestors are like Superman, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. We could not leave behind the lifestyle and consciousness of a hedonistic society like Egypt overnight. Real change takes time and determination.
Today everything is instant access. Most of us have instant access to our email through Blackberries, instant access to our bank accounts through ATMs, and instant gratification through microwaves and single-packaged junk food. We expect immediate results when we begin a diet. But lasting change requires moving up the ladder slowly, altering our behaviors in incremental ways, one step at a time. Even the highest mountain is scaled one step a time.
What we can we do practically to change ourselves and prepare not just for Shavuot, but for life in general? First, we can resolve to try – even just for five minutes a day -- to improve ourselves in some way. Maybe we need to go beyond our Sunday school level of Hebrew; we can start spending five minutes each day with a tutor or friend learning through the Hebrew aleph-bet. Perhaps we're interested in becoming more kind; we could spend a few minutes bringing food to a shut-in, or visit a sick person in the hospital, or help someone by carrying their groceries. It could be that we want to better understand the ancient wisdom of the Torah. So take five minutes of your lunch time to read about the weekly Torah portion online.
When tackling our big goals -- being in better control of our tempers, or not complaining -- break those enormous tasks into smaller ones. Move towards those spiritual goals in increments, not tremendous leaps.
May all of us reach the top of our personal and national mountains at Shavuot through small, steady steps towards the Torah.