Mind Over Matter
The period between the first day of Passover and Shavuot, a chunk of time totaling seven weeks, precisely 49 days, is known as the days of the Omer. There is a commandment to count off these days and weeks as they pass. The Shulchan Aruch, (Orach Chaim 489,) lists the rules: basically, we are instructed to recite a blessing concerning counting the Omer each and every night [in Jewish law the new day begins at night as in Genesis; 'it was evening than it was morning'] and then say how many of the seven weeks and forty-nine days have elapsed.
The blessing takes the usual form:
"Blessed are You ... who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding the counting of the Omer."
As I write this, it is the 17th day of the Omer, which we counted last night by saying today is two weeks and three days in the Omer. At times it is fairly easy to comprehend how the performance of a Mitzvah can invest the person with an aura of sanctity - the Mitzvot of praying, learning Torah or observing Sabbath come immediately to mind. But this is certainly not a claim that can be made regarding this Mitzvah of counting the days of the Omer. How can the mere counting of days constitute a sanctifying experience?
HOW DOES COUNTING DAYS LEAD TO SANCTITY?
Let us begin to explore the answer to this question by attempting to understand the Mitzvah as presented by the Sefer HaChinuch, commandment #306:
"The holiday of Passover was unquestionably given to celebrate the emancipation of the Jewish people from the slavery of Egypt. However, it is important to understand exactly what it is that we are celebrating. In God's view the emancipation in itself does not merit celebration; it was only a means to an end. We needed to be released from the bondage of Egypt in order to be able to accept the Torah. It is the acceptance and the fulfillment of the Torah that lends meaning and purpose to the emancipation and renders it an event worth celebrating. To emphasize this point we are commanded to count off the days between the emancipation and Shavuot as if to say, 'We can't wait until we are able to receive the Torah. The anticipation of its acceptance is the true source of the excitement we feel about our emancipation.'"
But how can God command the performance of such a Mitzvah? What if the truth is that I am more excited about being emancipated and being free to do as I like, than I am about accepting the Torah whose dictates severely limit my freedom? Do I still have to count the Omer, an act that falsely portrays me as panting with anticipation to meet God and receive His Torah? What is the point of a Mitzvah that expresses a feeling? Either the feeling the counting of the Omer is meant to express is part of our inner furniture in any case, and then, there is no need for a commandment to express it, or the feeling is absent, in which case the performance of the Mitzvah is an empty gesture.
HOW CAN ANYONE COMMAND YOU TO FEEL?
One of the most confusing aspects of life, which impacts particularly on our attitude to our relationship with God and the way we relate to religion, is the establishment of the proper balance between thoughts and feelings. In the establishment of what we consider true reality, does what we feel or what we know play the dominant role, or is there some instinctive combination of knowledge and feeling that human beings were programmed to apply? We shall devote this essay to exploring the Torah resolution of this problem, because the Mitzvah of counting the Omer holds the key to this aspect of life.
THE SPIRITUAL CONTRAST BETWEEN PASSOVER AND SHAVUOT
In a previous essay on this Parsha (see Up For The Count) we established that the difference between the spiritual quality of Passover and Shavuot is expressed by the difference between the Omer sacrifice, brought on Passover, consisting of barley, an animal food, and the sacrifice of the Two Loaves made on Shavuot consisting of wheat, a food people eat. The revelation of Passover was unearned; we weren't up to attaining the level of spiritual elevation to which God raised us. Such revelation is symbolized by animal food. Animals were not created to develop their potential and are not expected to do so; their levels of development were implanted by God as part of their natures with no potential for growth or change.
Inasmuch as the Exodus and the Redemption were events that required no input on our parts - we passively experienced being freed from spiritual bondage just as we experienced our physical release from Egyptian slavery - a Divinely implanted spirituality was sufficient to provide the underpinnings of these events. On the other hand, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai required our active co-operation and participation. We had to resolve to dedicate ourselves to its observance in order to make its acceptance possible. Receiving God's Torah was not something wonderful that could merely happen to us, like the emancipation. The acceptance of the Torah amounts to the establishment of an eternal covenant. A covenant is a negotiated agreement that requires two active participants.
Besides, the Torah is only useful as a tool to enable you to develop your spiritual potential through the application of your own free will. People who need to be inspired and stimulated by God to attain their spirituality have no need of Torah commandments. Such people believe that either God will 'save' them spiritually or they will never attain serious spiritual growth.
TRANSFORMATION FROM PASSIVE TO ACTIVE
The passive spiritual inspiration of the Exodus is symbolized by animal food; the Torah could not be given on the basis of the spiritual maturity we attained through the emancipation of the Exodus.
God had to provide us with the days of the Omer as a break between the Exodus and the meeting of Sinai so that we could have the opportunity of transforming the spiritual heights we attained from the status of a gift dependant entirely on God's constant support to something we could merit and maintain through the application of our own efforts.
The sign of the accomplishment of this transformation is God's willingness to accept our offering of the two loaves of leavened bread on Shavuot, the day of the receiving of the Torah; an offering of people food, bread made of wheat - the only time of year that leavened bread was allowed on the Temple Altar. The spiritual level of Passover and Shavuot is one and the same. The difference is not to be measured in size but has to be understood in terms of maturity. Passover is God-given and therefore childish; Shavuot is reached through hard work and spiritual maturity.
If we delve into how this difference expresses itself existentially, we will discover that Passover must be presented in terms of emotional certainty, followed by confusion and intellectual doubt, while Shavuot can be portrayed in terms of the intellectual clarity that is reached through the resolution of one's doubts through the application of the power of reason.
EMOTION VERSUS INTELLECT
The Exodus experience was loaded with powerful spiritual impact. The miracles of the plagues and the parting of the waters of the Sea of Reeds had the capacity to bring the Divine Presence into such sharp focus that it became a part of perceived physical reality. The song that Israel sang as they crossed the dry seabed contained the following phrase: "This is my God and I will build Him a Sanctuary; the God of my father and I will exalt Him" (Exodus 15:2). Rashi, in the name of the Midrash, writes: God revealed Himself so openly to the Jews that they were able to point to His Presence and say to each other, "Look over there! You see, that is God!"
In our relationship with God we are constantly pursuing clarity and certainty. The greatest threat to spiritual achievements is the worm of doubt. The pursuit of spirituality always comes at the expense of devotion to physicality. The physical world is palpably real whereas spiritual phenomena can only be accessed in the perception of the human mind. Any doubt that enters our minds concerning the reality of our spirituality will necessarily be translated into turning away from the pursuit of spirituality to shelter in the security of physicality.
THE ORIGIN OF DOUBT
This relationship between doubt and the loss of spirituality is made crystal clear by the Torah itself in the presentation of the aftermath of the Exodus. As soon as the clarity of vision attained during the splitting of the sea began to fade, the Jewish people were in trouble.
"He called the place Massah U'meribah, because of the contention of the Children of Israel and because of their test of God, saying, 'Is God among us or not?' Amalek came and battled Israel in Refidim" (Exodus 17:7-8).
The Rabbis interpret the juxtaposition of this 'contention' with the attack of Amalek as causal rather than circumstantial; it is our spirit of 'contention' that made us vulnerable to Amalek's attack. Amalek is always ready to pounce on the weakness of Jewish confusion and uncertainty. As soon as Israel questioned whether the Presence of God was among them or not, there was an opening for Amalek to attack.
If we pause to ponder the nature of this uncertainty entertained by the Jewish people regarding God's Presence in their midst, we are bound to conclude that it was clearly only emotional and not rational. The Jewish people who doubted whether the Presence of God was among them or not were living off the manna, drinking the waters that flowed from the rock, and traveling on the clouds of Glory even in the midst of their doubt. In their minds they must have known beyond the shadow of a doubt that God existed and was watching over them as one would guard a treasured child. The only way to explain their doubt is that emotionally they no longer felt His Presence among them. They could no longer point to the Divine Presence and declare, "This is my God."
HOW CLARITY CAN FADE
As the immediacy of the experience of the Divine Presence as a palpable physical entity faded in their collective sensory memory, it was replaced by feelings of confusion and doubt. This demonstrates the fact that human beings are capable of experiencing feelings of doubt about spiritual phenomena they perceive as being real intellectually as soon as these phenomena no longer impact on them emotionally. The feelings of doubt and confusion regarding spiritual phenomena are rarely the results of justified intellectual skepticism.
These feelings of doubt are the result of our instinctive orientation to reality. The relative trust that we invest in our physical perceptions and emotional feelings versus our intellects as reliable detectors of reality is the chief cause of our spiritual confusion. If we doubt our spirituality emotionally, it matters not that we are certain of it intellectually; the things that are only visible to our mind are not truly real to us. We get upset and confused and lose our bearings, and with it the firm grip on our relationship with God.
THE DISTRUST OF REASON IN THE FACE OF ITS ACCURACY
There is a profound irony in this. If you ask any well- educated modern person how to reliably establish reality, he will tell you that you cannot trust your feelings or even your physical senses to accurately establish the parameters of what is real. Science provides us with endless examples of how deceiving the perceptions of our physical senses can be. Truth can only be discovered by subjecting all perceived phenomena to the test of logic and reason. Only the intelligence of the human mind can be trusted to reliably guide us to the truth.
Yet the experience of the desert generation shows how deeply the distrust of phenomena that we can only perceive with the power of our minds is engrained within us. We realize the necessity of employing our intelligence to work out a true picture of reality and weed out the false images broadcast by our emotions and physical senses, but we are not ready to trust the picture of reality presented by our minds unless it is confirmed by the worthless testimony of these false witnesses. Here are the Jewish people doubting the reality of God's Presence even as their surroundings provide them with scientific proof of the reality of this Presence. God supplies the Manna, the water and the clouds and yet He isn't there.
We have just located the precise function of the Mitzvah of counting the Omer and diagnosed the spiritual disease of Amalek into the bargain.
THE EFFECTS OF THE PASSAGE OF TIME
The great emotional clarity produced by the miracles of the emancipation inevitably fades with time. Emotional feelings are physically felt responses to phenomena and they must inevitably weaken as we recede in time and distance from the events by which they were stimulated. But truth discovered by reason retains its freshness eternally. In the cold emotionless light shed by the intellect there is no lessening of intensity with the passage of time. Either things are true or they are not.
There was a way to successfully retain the spiritual height we had been helped by God to reach through the miracles of the Exodus. Even after the feelings of inspiration fade, the mind fully recognizes that the events that inspired us were a part of reality. We may no longer be able to point to God and say, "Look, there He is!" after we finish the crossing, but the intellectual evidence of God's existence and of His concern for us remains entirely undiminished. But we require a fundamental change in orientation to exploit this recognition.
We are all innately programmed to invest our trust and allegiance into our hearts and to be suspicious of the information projected by our minds. The mind informs us that God is out there and loves us, but because we don't see it with our eyes or feel it in our hearts, we do not accept the information as true. We must train ourselves to transfer our allegiance and trust to our minds if we are to take advantage of this truth. We must appoint our minds to serve as the ultimate arbiters of reality and truth.
CHOOSING THE MIND
This internal transformation is what the days of the Omer are about. True holiness and spiritual greatness can only be reached by people who choose to be guided by their minds.
The Talmud (Yoma 69b) informs us that the Members of the Great Assembly who established the second Temple also authored our prayers. The reason why they were called 'great' was because they restored God's crown. The original text of the prayer had introduced God as great, mighty and awesome. Jeremiah came along and took out the word awesome; he said to himself, "How can we refer to God as being awesome when the nations are desecrating His sanctuary?" Daniel then took out the word mighty. He argued, "How can we refer to God as mighty when He allows the nations to enslave and exile His people?"
But the members of the Great Assembly reinserted these words. They argued, "On the contrary, the fact that the nations are out to destroy the Jewish people and yet we continue to survive and prosper is the most powerful indication of the fact that He is mighty and awesome." In the light of physical perception and emotion we no longer feel God's might and awesomeness following the destruction of His Temple. If our perception of reality continues to be based on what we see and feel, we have no choice but to excise these praises from our prayers; God abhors false praise.
HOW TO ACHIEVE GREATNESS
The Members of the Assembly were referred to as great, because they had the breadth of vision to perceive that in reality as it is seen and understood by the mind, the indications of God's might and awesomeness had not diminished by a single iota through the destruction and exile. Man reaches greatness when he learns to see the world through the faculty that singles him out from all other creatures and makes him great - through the eyes of the mind. The prophet Chaggai (2,9) pointed out that the glory of the second Temple was greater than the first. The first Temple was inundated with God's Divine Presence, whereas the second was not. In the second Temple one could only perceive the Divine Presence through the eyes of the mind. It demanded spiritual maturity and greatness of its worshippers.
The days of the Omer were given to us to accomplish this spiritual growth. There is no better way to convey what they can achieve than this profound observation made by our rabbis regarding the relationship between the mind and the heart.
"Pharaoh approached; the Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold! - Egypt was journeying after them..." (Exodus 14:10)
Rashi explains: "...with one heart, as a single entity."
"They journeyed from Refidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:2)
Rashi explains: "...as one person with a single heart."
TYPES OF UNITY
Egyptian unity is attained through the heart. Only when every Egyptian heart beats with a single desire can the Egyptian people attain unity. Generally, we all have our own dreams and want different things. It is rare to achieve national unity through the heart.
The unity of Israel that armed the Jewish people with the power to make an eternal commitment to the Torah was attained through the mind. The days of the Omer enabled them to overcome the confusion of Refidim that had exposed them to Amalek's attack. By the time they arrived at Sinai they had acquired the ability to judge reality through the eyes of the mind. We all have different feelings and desires, but reason speaks to all of us in the same voice and teaches all of us the identical lesson. When we are united by our perceptions we can attain an everlasting unity of desire.
"Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain."