The Omer and Moshiach
And you shall count for yourselves…
from the day on which you bring the Omer offering, seven
complete weeks shall there be; until the morrow of the seventh
week you shall count fifty days, and you shall proclaim
that very day a holy festival – this weekís Torah
portion (Leviticus 23:15)
A short Omer story:
I heard a story from my grandfather (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) that
the holy R’ Avrohom (the son of the Maggid of Mezeritch) would direct his
kavanah (intention) in the days of the Omer on Moshiach. Once he (someone?)
was sick, and R’ Avrohom sent him to immerse in a mikveh and focus his intention
on the corresponding “sefirah” of that day.
What is the connection between the two? Moshiach represents
the time when the world will be cleansed from evil and will
be “filled with Divine knowledge,” and this
is the work we do in the days of the Omer: To refine ourselves
and the world. It is thus fitting that when we do this work
of refinement during the days of the Omer we should focus
our attention on the full realization of this refinement:
†The Tzemach Tzedek (Biurei haZohar vol.
2 p. 945)
With all this talk about the global economic crisis and
our other current challenges, things can get quite depressing.
People everywhere, and our institutions in particular –
the ones in which we placed our trust – have been,
shall we say, humbled. Or worse: shattered.
Our leaders are scrambling to find solutions, mostly short-term, to stem
the tide and stop the bleeding, so that we can then think of restoring and
rebuilding the crippled infrastructures.
And where does that leave most of us today? Cowering in fear and insecurity
of an unstable present and an uncertain future. Truth be told, there are many
people looking for opportunities and surely finding some; there are those
that have put away for a “rainy day” and are cruising along. But overall,
a cloud of doom and gloom hangs over us, and affects anyone and everyone,
some in very financial and tangible ways, and all others in psychological
ways. Demoralization is felt in almost every circle.
So when I tell one of our supporters these days: “Now is the time to create
global change; Now we have an opportunity, when our “systems” have failed
us, to introduce a new spiritual consciousness and help create a new “world
order”– my friend nervously laughs and shrugs me off: “No, now is a time to
hunker down, lick our wounds and wait until the storm passes.”
When I hear such resignation, all my antennae go up. Everything I was ever
taught, all my training, causes my juices to begin flowing and my instincts
to sharpen up, telling me that this attitude is wrong. Absolutely wrong. We
are not victims of circumstance. We create circumstances. No big feat to be
riding high when everything is going smoothly and the economy is humming along.
The challenge is can you rise to the occasion when things are not going that
well and people are fearful and weak?
This is the deeper meaning of Counting the Omer: That we have the power to
change ourselves and the world. That we have the ability to refine the unrefined
and transform, the selfish into the selfless. That we can bring on a better
world – a Messianic world, where people are driven not by self-interest and
material gain, but by sublime and spiritual goals. A world where materialism
is not an end in itself but a means to Divine knowledge – a world “filled
with Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”
And we therefore focus our refinement work in these days of the Omer on the
ultimate refinement of the Messianic age.
Personal and global refinement may all sound so beautiful and glorious. In
fact, however, these concepts are actually quite revolutionary.† Let us study
them a bit in more depth.
The power to change yourself; the power to change the world. These are not
small statements. A scientific argument can be made that we are all hard-wired
creatures, following the cardinal rule of “survival of the fittest.” Yes,
personal refinement may be a very noble ideal, but humans like all animals
on this earth are guided by self-preservation and self- interest. If it serves
their interests they can be very kind and sensitive; but if it doesn’t, all
these aspirations are nothing more than highfalutin flights of fancy…
History is a brutal testament to the capacity of people annihilating each
other. And we need not look far: In our own, so-called progressive times,
we see the far-reaching effects of greed and self-interest on our economy
To claim, therefore, that we can refine our emotions and perfect our personalities,
can be simply dismissed as fantasy.
And yet, that is exactly what Judaism expects and demands of us: To go against
the “natural” tide of self-worship and yes, refine our very personalities.
You were born with certain personality traits and genetic tendencies – now
go and work hard to discipline them, refine them, channel them, direct them
to higher ends. You came to earth in a certain package; you have the ability
– and responsibility – to perfect the package. Like raw material, we can polish,
shine and transform the raw matter into a jewel. If you have a bad habit you
can break it. If you have an evil streak, you can change it. Bad can become
good. If you are good you can become better. And when you become better, you
can become even better than that.
Yes, my friends, that is exactly what we are capable of. Being created in
the Divine Image gives us abilities and resources far beyond the ones we can
The days of the Omer, are thus, days of majesty – a time when we celebrate
the power of mortals to become something greater than their pre-destined natures.
Vísefartem lochem, and you shall count for yourselves: Sefirah
(count) in Hebrew also means to relate, to tell a story. It also means to
shine and illuminate (like the sapphire). The additional word lochem,
which seems superfluous (what would be missing without this word?), emphasizes
the story and the illumination is to be directed “to yourselves,” in your
material world and selfish involvements, and it is this world of (“your selves”)
– your selfish emotions, drives and desires – which you must refine.
Vísefartem lochem, thus, means: You shall tell a story to your selves,
you shall illuminate to your selves – to your personalities – your ability
to change; to refine and transform you very characters. This is a time when
we must rise to towering heights of character development and personality
refinement. A period when we can and ought to change ourselves for the better.
And in doing so, we tell the illuminating story, thereby illuminating a dark
work around us; we demonstrate the power of the Divine in this world; the
power to take a raw human being and transform him/her into a beacon of compassion
This is the ultimate meaning of Moshiach – and the reason why people have
always aspired to the Messianic age: It captures the dreams and highest aspirations
of human beings to change themselves and the world for the better. This dream
has taken on many shapes in history – many isms – but they all boil down to
the firm belief that we can create a better world.
Counter to some cold scientific arguments, counter to the pessimism of some
cynics, counter to the general resignation that many naturally gravitate to
(especially in times of crisis and uncertainty) – we humans also have the
capacity to dream and aspire to a more prefect universe. And it is this deep-rooted
feeling that has actually driven human beings to improve their lives, through
medicine, technology and above all (and the most difficult of them all) –
in the moral standards of ourselves and our neighbors.
In the days of the Omer, we therefore concentrate and focus on Moshiach –
the power to refine and transform the world into a Divine home, “filled with
Divine knowledge as the waters cover the sea.”
So, in addition to the focus each day on refining the respective emotion
of the day, it is also beneficial to step back and concentrate on the overarching
theme of this forty-nine day Omer counting period – how our work in personal
refinement is infused with the overall Messianic refinement of the universe.
Take pride that you have chosen a path – the one less traveled – of believing
and working on improving your character and bettering the world around you.
Feel proud that you have chosen a life of vision where everything is possible.
Stand tall with the knowledge that your personal choices in how you will
behave today move the universe to a better place; a step closer to Moshiach.
Go in and change yourself.
Go out and change the world!
* Though the Tzemach Tzedek doesn’t specifically spell it out, it appears
that this also explains the connection with healing illness through the cleansing
of the mikveh and concentrating on the corresponding day of the Omer.