We know that Passover is the holiday of Jewish holidays. Nissan — the month in which Passover falls — is called the first month in Torah. Which makes Passover the first major festival. The first of the shalosh regalim — the core Biblical holiday three-part cycle.
Not only that, but it’s one of, if not the most, widely celebrated holidays in contemporary Judaism. Plenty of people who would never set foot in synagogue for the High Holidays attend some kind of Passover seder. How many more have watched The Prince of Egypt? Or know the words to “Go Down Moses?” Or relate in some way to the message of Passover?
And this all makes sense, since the story of Passover is the centerpiece story of the Jewish people. It’s about our people’s liberation from mythical Egypt. Freedom from Pharaoh. Our core, defining narrative as Jews. When we went down to Egypt, we were a family — about 70 people. Upon leaving, we were a nation of hundreds of thousands, or even a million people. We became a people in Egypt, a people oriented around the Passover story.
According to our tradition, in a deep kind of way, Passover is really just a beginning. The appetizer. The foreword.
Because no more than 30 hours into the holiday, we’ve already begun to move on.
Picture the scene:
Second night seder is winding down. You’ve had your fourth cup of wine, crumbs of matzah rest on your shirt and are strewn about the table in front of you. You glance down at the horseradish stains on the tablecloth — red horseradish! You still have 6 more nights to go. 6 more long days of matzah pizza and cream cheese and jelly on matzah. You are really just starting to gear yourself up for all of the Passover still in front of you, and what do you do?
You begin to count the Omer. You announce, at the conclusion of that second-night seder, today is the first day of the omer. The first day of forty nine days which leads us from Passover to Shavuot. Already moving us ahead from our people’s enslavement in Egypt to the revelation at Mount Sinai. The gefilte fish has barely even had a chance to settle, and we’re already moving on to an overlapping daily ritual that will span the next seven weeks.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th c. Germany) captures the essence of this tradition quite powerfully.
“‘After [Day 1 of Pesach],’ when you have not only celebrated the Festival of your having attained freedom, but you have also brought to your mind before God, the fact of your independence gained by possession and enjoyment of one's own land, so that you are conscious of both those possessions — freedom and prosperity, which in general, are the aims which all national desires and all national efforts are directed to attain, then you are to consider yourself not at the goal, but only at the beginning of your national destiny and only then begin to count for the acquisition of another goal. Thus this command to count is expressed in Deut. 16:9, in these terms: ‘When the sickle begins at the standing corn, begin thou to count etc.’ Where others leave off their counting, you begin your counting.”
You’ve already harvested your bounty, Hirsch is saying. Your sickle is already cutting down your crops. You’ve already been freed, and given riches. Shouldn’t that be enough? Dayenu? Shouldn’t that merit a complete celebration that doesn’t rely on anything else?
The answer for us Jews, simply, is no.
In the words of Rabbi Shai Held, contemporary author and scholar:
On Pesach, the Israelites were liberated from slavery — but for what purpose? God does not demand simply that Pharaoh “let My people go,” but rather that the king “let My people go that they may serve Me” (Exodus 7:26). For Jewish tradition, so committed to the ideal of freedom for a sacred purpose as opposed to mere freedom from external constraint, Pesah needs to lead somewhere, and Sinai-Shavuot is that destination. Counting the forty-nine days of the Omer thus becomes an exercise in anticipating revelation.
Living in America, the land of the free and home of the brave, “freedom” has come to take on a particular meaning in common parlance. A certain brand of freedom that you may recognize. A freedom which allows me to do whatever I want whenever I want, because ain’t nobody gonna stop me. No. Nobody’s gonna come trample all over my hard fought rights. This is a free country and so I’m free to make up my own mind and act the way that I want, according to my own values and backed by the US Constitution, regardless of what you have to say about it.
Do you recognize this freedom? You may have heard that kind of rhetoric before. Freedom founded in rights. Freedom from reproach. Freedom from you or anyone else telling me no, or telling me what to do.
This is, perhaps, the freedom that Hirsch was talking about when he described freedom and prosperity as “the aims which all national desires and all national efforts are directed to attain.”
But this is America’s freedom. Other nations’ freedom. But not Judaism’s.
No. For us, this type of freedom is not the goal, but only the coarse beginning. “Where others leave off their counting, we begin ours."
We Jews strive for a different kind of freedom.
Freedom to! Freedom to serve God. Freedom to stand up for the stranger. Freedom to live a life of holiness. Freedom to dedicate ourselves to healing the world and mending the brokenness that exists. Our freedom is not rooted in rights, but responsibility. Now that I am no longer under the thumb of another, I must do everything in my power to ensure that nobody else ever finds themselves under the thumb of a mere mortal again. My freedom comes in the form of a covenantal relationship with the ultimate sense of goodness in the universe. Not just “let My people go,” but rather “let My people go that they may serve Me.”
Where others leave off their counting, you begin yours.
Or, in the words of the great Rabbi Robert Zimmerman, otherwise known as Bob Dylan:
You're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.
In Egypt we were slaves to Pharaoh, avdei pharo. After Sinai, we become servants of God, avdei ha’shem. Servitude to Pharaoh and servitude to God share the same Hebrew word. Who are you going to serve? Who are you going to devote your life to? To what end are you going to dedicate yourself? “You’re gonna have to serve somebody,” the verse reminds us. We Jews — we choose the Lord.
Avodah, sacred service, becomes our work in the world. We become a nation of priests. And Counting the Omer is the bridge that gets us from serving the devil (Pharoah in Egypt) to serving the Lord (Ha’Shem) at and after Sinai.
In the words of the medieval commentator, Sefer Ha-Hinnukh (13th century Spain): “The very essence of the Jewish people is only the Torah… and it is the essence of why they were redeemed from Egypt — so that they would receive the Torah at Sinai and fulfill it.”
Rabbi Shai Held expands on that line: “Receiving the Torah, the author insists, is an even greater good for the Jewish people than freedom from slavery; the purpose of the latter is to lead on the former. We count forty-nine days in order to demonstrate the immense yearning we feel for the great day when we will receive the Torah, “because counting shows a person that all of our longings and all of our yearnings are focused on getting to that day” (Mitzvah #306).
In counting these days each year, in other words, the Jewish people re-experience the excitement and anticipation that the first generation of liberated Israelites felt: We are no longer slaves, and soon we will receive the Torah, the greatest gift imaginable.
Yes, all of our longings and all of our yearnings are focused on getting to that day. But we’re not just longing in anticipation. It’s not a passive experience, waiting for the passing of time to take place so that we can arrive at the foot of Sinai. Rather, this time and this ritual — counting the omer — is a time and ritual of active preparation.
Rabbi Hirsch expounds on his thinking, picking up on the idea that we count forty nine days, seven weeks, leading directly into the 50th day. But confusingly, the Torah wasn’t given on the fiftieth day. It was given on the 51st. So why do we count up to the 50th, he asks. What’s so special about the day before the Torah was given?
“It is not the fact of the revelation of the Torah, but our making ourselves worthy to receive it, that our festival celebrates. It is the day before the Lawgiving, the day on which the nation finally presented itself as ready and worthy for the great mission to the world, to be the receivers and bearers of the Law of God, it is that day which the fiftieth day of the counting of the Omer represents.”
That is what counting the omer is for us.
Tying it all together, he concludes: “As we have remarked elsewhere, this Festival, differently from all the others, is not named after that which characteristically has to be done on it, but Shavuot — literally, ‘the weeks’ — is named after the counting of the weeks which preparatorily lead up to it."
According to Hirsch, then, Shavuot — where we receive Divine revelation — is not even as much about itself as it is the preparation that went into getting there. The revelation, it seems to be saying, is the gravy. The cherry on top. Or stated with more nuance, perhaps, Shavuot is the natural result of everything that came before. And what came before? The work. The doing. The preparation. Counting each day for seven weeks. Intentionality. Commitment. Consistency. Taking seriously the task set out before us. To make the most of each day. To take our journey one day at a time. Not to look ahead. Not to assume results. Not to simply let life pass us by. But to pause, each night after sundown, in the first few hours of each new Jewish day, and say “Today is the day. Another day has passed. And I am promising myself I won’t let this next one pass me by without having done everything I possibly can during these 24 hours to prepare for the ultimate, pinnacle, experience of divine revelation.”
Before we’ve barely even gotten into the second day of Passover up until the day before Shavuot even begins, we have this in-between time, the counting of the omer, which, in some ways, is the most important of the bunch. Or at the very least, intrinsically necessary and of equally intertwined significance. Because freedom from Pharaoh is critical. But it means nothing without Divine revelation. And Divine revelation is central. But it is impossible without spiritual preparation. Today is day 47 of the Omer. Which means we have 2 days to go until Shavuot.
May these days of preparation help take each of us from liberation to revelation, and may they support us on our collective journey from the wilderness to the Promised Land. Borrowing again from Hirsch: Come Shavuot, may we have made ourselves worthy to receive the Torah, and presented ourselves as “ready and worthy for our great mission to the world, to be the receivers and bearers of the Law of God.”