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Counting the Omer: From Matzah to Hametz, from Spiritual Impoverishment to Richness

In the afterglow of Passover, we now find ourselves in the period of the counting of the omer. The Torah teaches that for 49 days we count the omer each night, as our ancestors did when they left Egypt. Midrash tells us that when our ancestors left Egypt, Moses told them it would take 49 days to reach Mt. Sinai. In their excitement to receive the Torah and become truly free from the shackles of enslavement, the Israelites counted the days until the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot, the day God gave us Torah. The counting of days to Mt. Sinai became a counting of daily barley offerings from the second day of Passover to Shavuot.

This counting represents an extended religious journey we still embark upon today, reciting a blessing and counting for 49 nights. The counting of the omer is a from enslavement to freedom, symbolized by the difference between Hametz and Matzah.

Let me explain: Our tradition teaches that no offering made to God in the tabernacle or Temple contained hametz. Apparently, God is fan of flatbreads! Furthermore, during Passover we remove all hametz from our environment. Yet, oddly enough, there is an exception to the hametz-free sacrifice rule— the two loaves of bread brought by our ancestors and offered on the altar in the tabernacle and Temple on Shavuot. During Passover we embody a hametz-free home and mindset, but by the time we reach Shavuot, we actually embrace hametz!

Some academic scholars believe the transition to matzah on Passover to Hametz on Shavuot was derived from the common custom of throwing out the sourdough starter each spring and making a new starter, feeding it everyday to keep it growing. This is essentially what we do in the process from Passover to Shavuot. We start again, building ourselves back up religiously and spiritually, shedding the mentality that has enslaved us and kept us from serving God. Each day we move step by step back towards a holy existence. The kabbalists took this notion and made it into an art, relating each of the 49 days of the omer to 49 different aspects of character. Each day of the omer is an opportunity to focus on one facet of our life, personality, and character. If we seize that opportunity, we can receive Torah again this coming Shavuot truly renewed.

Matzah symbolizes the  beginning of the redemption process. As bread at the beginning of the process of production, Matzah serves as a reminder that Passover and the exodus from narrow straits is just the beginning of a long hard journey through the wilderness. That journey is marked day-by-day, with the counting of the omer.  Each day of the omer, we move closer to a higher level of existence, we move away from matzah and towards hametz until we reach Shavuot and mark the completion of the transformative process.

The period of counting the omer is the  journey from Egypt to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot, from matzah to hametz. Whatever the paradigm, the message is the same: living a Jewish life requires constant tending. Raising our commitment to live a life imbued with a sense of holiness requires more than desire and well-intentioned words uttered just a few weeks ago at seder. It takes work every day. The omer is an opportunity to elevate our level of spiritual sophistication, symbolized by the two loaves of bread brought on Shavuot.

There are many apps available to assist you in counting the omer. Two that I particularly like are Sefiros Grow (available for ios) and MyOmer (for ios and android). Both contain insights and reflections to assist you on your spiritual journey from Passover to Shavuot, from Matzah to hametz, from feelings of impoverishment to the richness of living a Jewishly committed life.

Start the journey today!