Much has been written bemoaning the hypocrisies
we witness daily of so-called pious people behaving in very
impious ways. The Talmud perhaps captured it best in describing
the proverbial thief who prays to G-d “before he goes
out to steal” (Berachot 63a).
None of us are immune to inconsistencies and just plain
old duplicity in our own behaviors – the contradictions
between our actions and our expectations of others; the
standards we claim to uphold and our lapses. And we always
notice and criticize the flaws of others more than we do
our own. “A man sees all flaws except his own,”
says the Mishne.
But when this dissonance appears in religious circles the
disconcertment is amplified many times over. The contrast
of a person being so devout on one hand, while being so
coarse on another, is terribly unnerving. (This column has
frequently addressed the issue and the roots of this dissonance.
and Ethics and Religious
To help us counter our human inconsistencies and especially
religious dissonance, the Torah offers us powerful tools.
One of them is the key mitzvah of counting the Omer –
a 49-day period, beginning the second night of Passover,
that focuses on refining our personalities.
Why does the counting commence at the outset of Passover?
Technically, the reason for this is because, as Leviticus
states, the counting begins on the day that the Omer offering
(a measure of barley) was brought in the Temple, which was
the second day of Passover. But the question only carries
over to the verse: Why not bring the offering after Passover
and then begin the 49-day character refinement process after
Passover? The energy of freedom emanates during Passover,
so why the need to add in these days another element: character
When the Jewish people left Egypt you would think that
after 210 years of harsh oppression, they should now be
allowed to relax a bit before taking on their next challenge.
Yet we see that virtually the day after they left Egypt
they began to count the days, which included their hard
work of introspection and character refinement in preparation
This timing teaches us a profound and vital lesson: Even
when you are celebrating freedom, never take your blessings
for granted. Every transcendent experience can just as quickly
dissipate. As soon as you experience a revelation, an inspiration,
an epiphany, channel it into personal growth and refinement.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of relying on the
crutch of religion when experiencing something special.
The most important thing to always remember – even,
or especially, when you are on a high – is that you
must integrate the freedom into your personal life. And
that requires hard work.
It’s one thing to be lifted on the Divine “wings of eagles”
and be carried by G-d out of bondage. It’s quite another
matter maintaining that freedom in our everyday routines.
Religion today – and humanity as a whole – is suffering
from deep spiritual dissonance: Being religious is not necessarily
equated with being refined. You would think that the more
pious an individual, the more sensitive he or she would
be, the more compassionate, the more giving and sublime.
That is not very often the case. In most cases the more
religious the person the less spiritual and vice versa.
People who are deeply committed to religious rituals and
dress in religious garb can at the same time be quite obnoxious.
Nachmanides writes (Leviticus 19:1) that in religious life
there is a possibility of a “naval b’reshut
haTorah,” a despicable person [who behaves so] with
“permission” of the Torah. This means someone
who uses the letter of the law in a disgusting way, to justify
his inappropriate behavior. We therefore have the specific
commandment “sanctify yourselves for I, your G-d,
am holy.” We need to limit and refine even that which
is permissible according to the Torah. Strict adherence
to the laws is not sufficient; it needs to be saturated
with sanctity and sensitivity. They must be performed not
just by habit or mechanically, but in a way that permeates
our beings and personalities and transforms our behavioral
Isaiah put it bluntly when he said in the name of G-d:
I cannot bear iniquity along with solemn assembly
(Isaiah 1:12). These people come near to me with their
mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are
removed from me. Their reverence for me consists of rules
learned by rote from men (29:13).
Religion today is often associated with dogma, anger, condescension,
judgementalism, insensitivity and even arrogance –
anything but deeper empathy and warmth. How is that possible?
How can a person devoted to G-d not be the most refined
person on Earth?
The answer lies in the profound dissonance that is possible
in our dark universe, where the Divine reality is shrouded
in layers upon layers of coarse materialism.
So we are given the mitzvah of counting the Omer and refining
our characters just at the high point as we are leaving
Egypt – to tell us that the religious high must be
drawn into our personal behaviors, that a Divine experience
is not complete and will not hold unless it refines our
attitudes, sensitizes our senses and simply makes us better,
more giving, more loving human beings.
This is also the meaning of the mitzvah of counting the
Omer, And you shall count for yourselves (U’sefartem
lochem): U’sefartem (from the word sapir,
the lustrous sapphire stone) also means you shall shine.
And the additional word lochem (for yourselves)
– which seems superfluous – emphasizes that this consists
not merely of counting, but of internal work. We need to
internalize and integrate the experience, by refining our
personalities to the point that we shine for ourselves
– we emanate a glow and an aura from within that only
comes from the refined beauty of a transformed psyche.
Freedom – even the great Egyptian Exodus led by G-d – is
not complete until we integrate the experience into our
personal lives. Passover gave us the Divine gift of freedom,
taking us out of all our constraints and fears (mitzrayim).
That is step one. But that alone doesn’t mean that
we are free from within. True freedom is possible
only when we free ourselves from our own emotional subjectivity
and trappings, through the thorough process of introspection
and character growth in the 49 days of the Omer.
U’sefartem lochem: Each day we count – reflect,
refine and illuminate – another aspect of our emotional
Then and only then do we become ready to absorb the 50th
day – the Sinai experience, an even greater transcendent
dimension, when we receive the Divine blueprint and power
to fuse matter and spirit. We don’t count the 50th
day, but we cannot reach it unless we first count and refine
our 49 (7x7) personality features.
What a fascinating way to look at the post-holiday period.
Usually one would think that after a long and beautiful
holiday we return to our regular routines and move on. Omer
tells us that as Passover ends we don’t just rush
to buy the fastest pizza pie – and reenter our quotidian
lives. We now have the great responsibility and the glorious
opportunity to demonstrate our ability to shine –
to shine from within – and illuminate our environment
with distinction and dignity.