The process of counting days from Pesach to Shavuot has profound significance in Jewish thought.
This finds its expression in the pasuk from Tehillim 90.12 which reads:
למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה
“teach us to count our days and it will bring us a heart of wisdom”.
What is the nature of this wisdom that can be created by this counting process?
There are several ideas which come together to explain this process.
1. The symbolism of the chametz which is forbidden on Pesach is clearly referred to in Talmud Bavli Berachot 17a as corresponding to the materialism of human nature, the drive for wealth and power, self gratification and hedonism, and social recognition. All these are natural elements of human nature but are in opposition to spiritual aspirations. Following this idea, the requirement to destroy and disown all traces of chametz expresses the idea of totally destroying these aspects of life.
2. In contrast we find that at the completion of the counting when we celebrate Shavuot, the Temple service uniquely revolves around the “shtei ha-lechem” – the two loaves of real bread. If chametz symbolises the materialistic side of human nature as mentioned above, it is curious that on this day commemorating The Revelation at Sinai we should be celebrating by giving priority to the bread which endorses our materialistic drives.
3. The Mishna at the end of massechet Berachot contains the key to this puzzle. The Mishna learns that there is a word which appears in the daily Shema (Devarim 6.5) in which we speak about “to love God with all your heart” which should have been written
ואהבת את ה אלוקיך בכל לבך
But in fact it is written with two letters ‘beis’
And the Mishna understands that this means that a person is required to love God with BOTH the spiritual AND the material sides of human nature, – both the yetzer ha-tov and the yetzer ha-ra. This is often understood to mean that one serves God by suppressing and negating the yesterday ha-ra, but there is also a more profound meaning, which is found in the writings of the Rambam.
4. Maimonides (Mishne Torah. Hilchot Deot Ch.3.)
שמא יאמר האדם הואיל והקנאה והתאוה והכבוד וכיוצא בהם דרך רעה הן…. אפרוש מהן ביותר והתרחק לצד האחרון… כגון כהני העכו׳ם… גם זה דרך רעה היא ואסור לילך בה. המהלך בדרך זו נקרא חוטא.
“A person might say that since the dangers of jealousy lust and fame are so great I will abandon this life totally and live as an ascetic like the pagan priests and monks, -this is a bad way of life and it is forbidden to do so. Such a person is called a sinner.”
Rambam continues to explain that the correct approach is to live a life fully engaged in the material world, but making sure that all material goods and drives are used for spiritual purposes, and that a person controls this materialism carefully and harnesses it for the goals of the Torah.
5. We can now put the pieces together and see a deeper meaning in the counting of the days of the Omer. Once a year on Pesach we totally destroy the chametz to show we are in control of the material world and are able to disown it completely. However, this is the crucial point, it is not the goal of the Torah to totally negate these material drives and aspirations, as the Rambam wrote. Over the course of the 49 days we can slowly bit by bit reintroduce the ‘chametz’ into our lives, knowing that it will not take over our life, rather it can be used correctly for the purposes of the Torah, finally reaching Shavuot where we can have full chametz bread in the Temple, and show that we can utilise all the material goods of the world for the good, and without being overtaken by these desires.
6. This idea is also a key to a different question. Why would this counting be called ‘Omer’? The word Omer is generally assumed to be simply a measure, a kilo, like the kezayit or kebeitzah of the Halacha, but why use that as the name of this mitzvah? The answer is that we find in the Torah that the same word is used also differently, as a verb, and it means ‘to subjugate or enslave’ another person. (see for instance Devarim 21.14 & 24.7). The commentary ‘ha-kesav ve-hakabbalah’ makes this connection (Vayikra 23.11) and says that the word Omer is actually from this meaning, that we are demonstrating our abilities. to subjugate all our material desires and assets to the spiritual purposes of the Torah. This fits exactly the meaning described above to the process of the counting days and increasing our ability to subjugate and harness all our material life for correct goals.
7. If we are correct that the wisdom mentioned in the opening verse from Tehillim describes the application of the Mishna above, of how to use all our physical as well as spiritual feelings for the Torah, it is also clear why it says
Since it is referring to that pasuk in the Shema which is explained in the Mishna.