Counting the Omer

The Counting of the Omer is our annual re-enactment of the 49 day journey our ancestors made following the Exodus from Egypt. For 49 days they wandered in the desert. This was not mindless wandering. This time period of seven weeks of seven days, links Pesach to Shavuot. On the 50th day they arrived at Mount Sinai. For us the 50th day is the Festival of Shavuot (which means weeks). On the 50th day we receive the Torah, whether for the first time or each year anew.
In Leviticus 23:15, the commandment to Count the Omer reads as follows: "You shall count from the morrow of the rest day, from the day you brought the Omer that is waved- they are to be seven complete weeks-until the morrow of the seventh week, you are to count 50 days and then offer a new meal offering to the Lord". We begin counting on the 2nd night of Pesach. The Count is made in the evening. A traditional siddur will list the Count as well as giving the blessings before and after it.
The Omer is a measure of barley. It was mainly animal feed and represents the lower constricted consciousness, the animal soul, with it's awareness totally bound to the physical plane. It requires refinement and rectification. On Shavuot, the offering that was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem was of two loaves made of wheat, signifying the attainment of man's true potential, the grain of the earth elevated by man's work, a transcendent offering.
The Exodus from Egypt was a miracle performed by Gd. He released the Israelites from the bondage of Egyptian rule. The 49 day count is also a journey to freedom, but one that is made on our own without Divine assistance. We all identify with and appreciate most those things we have to work for, the achievements we make by your own efforts. Counting the Omer is man's work but it has it's basis in that original divine Vision of Freedom that we experienced when Gd took us out of Egypt, and re-experience each year during the Seder.
Our ancestors spent those 49 days in the desert preparing themselves spiritually to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. These were 49 days of intense character refinement. This character refinement has as much meaning for us today as it did for them. From what must we seek freedom when our lives are seemingly free? One answer is from our ingrained responses. We need to be able to stand back and take an objective look at our emotions, seeing strengths as well as weaknesses. By doing so we regain control over our emotional life and thus over the choices we make in and with our lives. The Omer is that period in time most opportune for growth towards emotional maturity.
In order to understand how to count the Omer and connect to the deeper meaning in each day's count we must first understand on what this meaning is based. Counting the Omer in Hebrew is called Sephirat HaOmer. The word Sephirah means three things according to the RaMak, Rabbi Moshe Kordevero (d.1570) in his work "Pardes"(Orchard): to count (mispar), to tell a story (sipur) and saphire (sapir, the realm of which remains a secret). To count we need only number the days, but to tell a story we must develop other methods.
Counting the Omer we seek each day's revelation and are rewarded to be one step closer and more prepared to stand again at Sinai, ready to receive the Torah anew. Life includes the challenge of getting there and the fulfillment of being there.

Illustration by Hannah Firmin/Sharp Practice from "The Secret Language of Symbols" by David Fontana
"A Spiriual Guide to Counting the Omer" by Rabbi Simon Jacobson
'A Still Small Voice, correspondence teaching in Jewish Wisdom', Sarah Idit Schneider
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"Kabbalah Goes Mainstream" by Micha Odenheimer The Jerusalem Report, Nov 8, 1999
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