Understanding the Omer
The Torah Portion outlines the mitzvot involved with the Omer offering. On the second day of Pesach we are commanded to bring an offering of barley in the Temple and the Torah further instructs us to count 49 days from the offering until the day before Shavuot.
Rav Yosef Salant in his work 'Be'er Yosef,' asks a number of questions about the Omer.(1) Amongst them he notes that the Omer offering was the same volume as the other similar offerings - a tenth of an eiphah . Yet this is the only offering in which the volume is described by the name 'Omer' as opposed to simply saying, 'a tenth of an eiphah.' (2) What is the significance of this change in name?
Secondly, he brings the Sefer HaChinuch who writes that purpose of Sefiras HaOmer (counting the Omer) is to count towards the day of the Giving of the Torah (Matan Torah), Shavuot. We count to demonstrate our excitement about reaching this holy day.(3) Rav Salant points out that from the Sefer HaChinuch's explanation it is difficult to see any specific connection between the Omer and Matan Torah, rather it simply seems that there were 49 days between the two events and so we count from one towards the other. Is there a connection between the seemingly separate occasions of the Omer offering and Shavuot?
He answers the first question by noting that the other time the word 'Omer' is used in the Torah is with regard to the Manna that the Jews received in the desert. In the Portion of Beshalach the Torah states that God commanded the people to gather from the Manna, "an Omer per person." (4) The Midrash also connects the Omer offering with the Manna. It tells us that the Omer offering was some kind of acknowledgement from the Jewish people to God of the Manna that they received in the desert.
Rav Salant explains that during their time in the desert the people 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. Further, 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 for, the people were free to involve themselves in learning Torah and serving God.
However, when they entered the land of Israel, the Manna from heaven stopped and they were required to acquire their livelihood through physical effort. With this change came a new danger: When a person sees his toiling bear fruit, there is the risk that his reliance on God will weaken and he will come to attribute his success to his own hard work. In order to prevent this from happening, the Torah gave us the Omer offering; we offer the first produce of the season to God, acknowledging that only He is the Source of our sustenance and not our own physical effort. By connecting the Omer to the Manna through the same term of volume, the Torah stresses that in truth there was no difference in how we attained our food in the desert and in Israel. In the same way that God provided us with food in the desert, He was the source of our sustenance once that miraculous period ended. The only difference is that now we no longer merited to experience open miracles and therefore we had to exert a measure of physical effort in order to attain our livelihood.
The 'Be'er Yosef' adds a beautiful proof of the connection between the Manna and the Omer. He brings the Gemara in Kiddushin that says that the Manna stopped falling when Moses died, but the people continued to eat what was remaining until they entered the land on the 16th of Nissan.(5) We also bring the Omer offering on that very date! Thus, every year, we begin counting the Omer on the day that the Manna stopped to further teach ourselves that the sustenance represented by the Omer is a continuation of the sustenance epitomized by the Manna.
He then goes on to explain the connection between the Omer and Shavuot. Thus far we have seen how the Omer teaches us that our livelihood ultimately comes from God. However, this awareness is not sufficient; we must also realize that earning a livelihood is not an end in itself, rather it is a means to a greater end - to enable us to have enough peace of mind so that we can focus on our spiritual activities without being overburdened by concerns about our livelihood. In this vein, the Torah connects the counting of the Omer to Shavuot to teach us that the purpose of the sustenance that is symbolized by the Omer is to take us to Matan Torah, to enable us to learn and observe the Torah effectively. Thus, for forty nine days we count the Omer, thereby infusing ourselves with the realization that God is the only Source of our livelihood and moreover, that His purpose in doing so is to enable us to get close to Him through learning and keeping his Torah.
The lessons of the Manna have had great relevance throughout Jewish history. In the time of the Prophet Jeremiah, the people had made working a greater priority than learning Torah. Jeremiah exhorted them to make learning Torah their main focus. They replied by claiming that they needed to focus totally on their work in order to survive.(6) Jeremiah responded by bringing out a container of Manna that was stored in the Temple.(7) He showed them that God has many ways of providing man with his livelihood and that he should realize the futility of focusing on one's physical sustenance to the exclusion of his spiritual well-being.
We no longer have the container of Manna to arouse us, however we still have the mitzvah of counting the Omer - it stands as a constant reminder that there is no benefit in working beyond the boundaries of acceptable physical effort because ultimately God is the sole provider of our livelihood. Moreover, it teaches us to remember that the purpose of having our physical needs is so that we can focus on growing closer to God.(8) These lessons are applied differently to each individual, there is no 'right' amount of time one should spend working, learning, and being involved in other spiritual pursuits. However, during this period of Sefiras HaOmer it is worthwhile for each person to spend a little time contemplating the balance of his involvement in spirituality and physicality. Does he work more than is really necessary? In his spare time, does he focus on his family and learning Torah, or does he 'bring his work home with him'? By asking such questions a person can hopefully internalize the lessons of the Omer.
1. Parshas Emor, p.48-55.
2. This is a dry measure containing the volume of 43.2 average eggs (Artscroll Chumash, Parshas Emor, p. 684).
3. Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvo 306.
4. Parshas Beshalach, 16:16.
6. One commentary writes that this incident occurred in a time of famine.
7. See Parshas Beshalach, Ch.16:32, where Moses instructs Aaron to place this container in the Tabernacle as a reminder for future generations of the lessons of the Manna. Rashi brings this incident in his commentary to that verse.
8. In this vein the Rambam explains that all the physical blessings promised in the Shema for keeping the Torah are not the ultimate reward. Rather, Hashem rewards us by providing for our livelihood so that we can focus on spirituality, for the true reward for keeping Mitzvos is the opportunity to do more Mitzvos.