On the fifteenth day of Nissan, the most exciting event in all history took place. Or so we thought.
It turned out to be only the second most exciting thing in history.
On the fifteenth day of Nissan, Hashem took us out of Egypt, with many amazing miracles. Hashem fulfilled the promise He had made to the Patriarchs, and freed us from being slaves.
At that time, Hashem catapulted us to the greatest height of holiness we had ever known. The Children of Israel had been so long in Egypt that many had forgotten what it meant to serve Hashem. Many had even worshiped idols. We are at almost the
lowest level possible. We were almost — but not quite — at spiritual rock bottom.
Hashem took us away from all that. Hashem poured holiness upon us, and raised us up to witness one of the greatest spiritual renewals anyone could experience. Each of us, personally, was elevated to a spiritual level that surpassed the level of most prophets in our great history.
Yet that was not the greatest event that ever happened to the Children of Israel.
There was one greater.
It took place just fifty-one days later.
That was the day we received the Torah.
This begs the question: If that was so much greater, then why didn’t it happen first? Why didn’t it happen during Passover? Since Hashem actually elevated each and every one of use personally, wouldn’t that have been the perfect time to give us the
The answer is: no. It would not have been the perfect time for us to receive the Torah.
Yes, on the first day of Passover we were truly spiritual. We were brought to a level we had never before attained. The problem was, we were brought there. We did not attain it ourselves.
A spiritual level granted as a gift might be a truly unsurpassed experience, but it cannot last. It cannot help us achieve a permanent standing. It allowed us to be brought out of Egypt, but in order for it to last Hashem would have had to continually pour it on us. And that’s not the purpose of Creation. The purpose of Creation is that we work to achieve a holy relationship with Hashem, not that He grant it to us as a gift.
And the Children of Israel knew that. So when Hashem told them that they would receive the Torah in seven weeks, they resolved that they would work hard to achieve the same level that Hashem had previously granted them as a gift, or as close as they could get to it. Once they had attained a high level by their own efforts, they would be ready to receive the Torah.
And so they began to count the days and weeks to Shavuos, which would be the day that they would be receiving the Torah. They began on the second night of Passover, after the initial spiritual high of that first day of Exodus had left them. Each day, they would improve themselves a little bit, until they worked themselves up step by step to a high level of service for the sake of Hashem.
Hashem saw their eagerness, and helped them in their efforts. Hashem promised the Children of Israel that whenever Jews decide to work to improve themselves, Hashem will help them achieve their goal.
During the time of the first Sefirah, Hashem gave the Children of Israel some of the Commandments, such as Shabbos, so that when we received the Torah we would already have attained some holiness. Holiness can be attained only through the performance of the Commandments. That is, in essence, the message of Sefiras Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer.
Hashem commanded the Children of Israel to institute the count from Passover to Shavuos as a yearly procedure. It is called «The Counting of the Omer» because it begins the same day that the barley is cut for the Omer Offering, as I explain in my
article «The Omer Sacrifice.»
Each year, beginning the second night of Passover, we count until we reach the Holiday of Shavuos. We utilize this time period to improve our spiritual lives, step by step, day by day, so that when Shavuos comes, we are ready to receive the Torah.
Hashem has promised us that each year, on Passover, we will be able to receive all the same holiness that the Children of Israel received that first Passover. And on Shavuos, we will be able to receive all the same holiness that the Children of Israel received that first Shavuos, when they stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah amidst great miracles and heavenly fire.
That very first Passover, the Children of Israel risked their lives to circumcise themselves and to slaughter the Passover Sacrifice, and therefore they merited that pouring of holiness on them. From Passover to Shavuos they labored hard to attain a high level of holiness.
If we are ready to risk our lives to fulfill the Commandments of the Torah, we can merit on Passover night what they merited. And if during Sefirah we labor hard to attain holiness, we will merit what our ancestors merited then, and we will see open miracles from Hashem just as they did.
The Dual Nature of Sefirah
The days of Sefirah are therefore days of achievement, days during which we work to become more holy. A chief component of that is giving the proper respect to Torah and to those who study Torah.
Unfortunately, this is a message easily forgotten. At one point in our history, around the year 120 CE, about 24,000 Torah students died of plague and war during the first 32 days of Sefirah. It happened to them because they forgot the important message of mutual respect. (This took place not all in one year, but over the space of a number of years they all died during Sefirah time. — see Midrash Koheles 11) This is why during the days of Sefirah, until the thirty-second day (inclusive), we remember that lesson, and we respectfully honor their memories by acts that are reminiscent of mourning: we do not cut our hair (except for reasons of tznius), we do not listen to music, we do not get married (engagements are permitted), and we do not dance (even during an engagement party).
Therefore, it should not be forgotten that Sefirah is the time when we work to improve ourselves so that when Shavuos comes, we are ready to receive the Torah. Mutual respect is one of the things we must focus on during this time.