ARTICLES

COUNTING DAYS, CREATING TIME

RABBI DR. AKIVA TATZ

May 2, 2017

 

            We have studied some of the ideas and elements which make up the spectrum of inspiration, work despite the loss of inspiration, and the result which should be a return to inspiration. With this in mind the spiritual path which leads from Pesach to Shavuos should be discernible. Let us define this path in order to understand the energies flowing down from the spiritual worlds at this time.

                                                        *    *    *

             There is a mashal (allegory) brought by the Sages to illustrate this path and the idea that Pesach must be grasped as a totality, but sefiras ha'omer, the period between Pesach and Shavuos, must be grasped oppositely, as a sequence of individual parts.
 

                        A father and son were walking in a dangerous place. They happened upon a chest of treasure. The son wanted to count out the individual gems of the treasure immediately. The father said: "It is too dangerous; we may lose all if we delay here. Let us take the chest unopened with us; when we arrive at a safe destination we shall be able to open it and count out its contents in detail."

                        So too, Pesach must be grasped as a leap to a new level perhaps many stages above one's present level without traversing each level individually. Thereafter the counting begins, each stage must be accounted for. What does this mean? 

                                                        *    *    *

             Pesach, as we have seen from more than one perspective, is a time of explosive potential, of opportunity to achieve what is ordinarily impossible. After the uplift of Pesach comes the difficult time of sefiras ha'omer, the counting of the omer. This is the period of forty-nine days leading to Shavuos, the time of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. The mitzva of this phase of the year is to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos. What is not so readily understood is: what does counting accomplish? What is built in the neshama and the world by counting days or stages? How does the work of counting result in the simcha (happiness) of Shavuos?

            Let us begin by noting a fascinating difficulty which arises from an opinion of the Ramban concerning this mitzva. The Ramban holds that this is one of those mitzvos which are not she'ha'zman grama - not caused by time. There are mitzvos which are time-bound, occasioned by time; such a mitzva must be performed at a particular time because that time demands that particular mitzva, that time is in a sense the cause of the mitzva. Now it is hard to imagine a mitzva more time-bound, more time-defined than sefiras ha'omer! It is performed specifically between Pesach and Shavuos, daily at the beginning of each twenty-four hour period, at nightfall. It is entirely a mitzva of time, it marks the passage of the days from Pesach to Shavuos. How can the Ramban possibly understand that this is not a mitzvas eseh she'ha'zman grama - not a mitzva which is caused by time? The very word "Shavuos" means "weeks" - it is the result of having counted seven weeks from Pesach. Can there be anything about this mitzva which is not time-bound?

                                                         *    *    *
             Before attempting to answer this most perplexing question, let us ask one or two others. The conventional understanding is that counting the omer is a "count-down", a counting of the days remaining until Shavuos - this is a natural activity of one who anticipates a longed-for event. When one looks forward to a significant day one counts off the days remaining between the present and that day. Why then do we count the days which have elapsed from Pesach? Surely we should be counting the diminishing number of days remaining until Shavuos, each day one less, rather than an increasing count of the days which have passed? The fact is that in sefiras ha'omer we count up - one day of the omer, two days of the omer, and so on. Why?

            Another facet of this same observation is as follows: we are counting towards Shavuos and yet we call the count sefiras ha'omer - the counting of the omer which is the offering brought on Pesach! Why is the mitzva named for the point of departure instead of the goal? The concept of these seven weeks is certainly a development - from the coarser offering of the barley omer on Pesach to the refined flour offering on Shavuos; in fact, the commentaries point out that barley is animal food, fine flour is human food - the idea is that of taking the lower, undeveloped animal self and elevating it in stages. If the path is one of growth towards a higher state, why focus backwards? These are fundamental questions concerning this mitzva.

                                                         *    *    *
             Let us understand. The chiddush (novel idea) to grasp here is that counting, in Torah terms, is not a sentimental marking of the passage of time until a goal; it is the building of that goal. Counting is work. Counting means accounting for and developing each component of a process fully, responsibly, and in correct sequence. Only when each detail is painstakingly created and assembled into the process can the goal be reached - in fact that itself is the goal; the sequence is our responsibility, if it is done correctly, the goal certainly results. The goal itself, in spiritual terms, cannot be built or achieved directly - it is transcendent. But the finite components can be built; when that is done appropriately, the result manifests as a gift.

            An analogy would be as follows: music is a deep and wonderful example of the beauty which can be perceived in the world. A musical experience is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, the individual notes which must be played to produce that music. One is moved by the totality of the music, the interrelationship and harmony of the notes which combine to produce the unique quality of the music as a whole. But that effect is achieved by playing those individual notes - each note must be the correct one, played at the correct time - and the music results! One cannot produce music "as a whole" in one single action - one can only execute each individual tiny component faithfully and accurately; when this is carefully done, music is the result.

            This analogy is not accidental - music is made of seven notes (the eighth in the octave is the same as the first) which combine to produce far more than could ever be imagined from hearing them individually. Sefiras ha'omer counts seven weeks of seven days and mystically these elements and the elements of music are based on the same source. In fact, the mystical term which describes the deepest source of the seven elements on which the physical world is based is sefiros, which literally means elements of counting! ("S'for" is to count, the root of "mispar", a number.) The world itself is based on a counting, a combining of specific sub-units in specific ways to produce the whole of the Universe. One can begin to understand what is meant by "the music of the spheres"!

                                                        *    *    *

             Music provides an even deeper insight into our subject. Mystically, one can achieve a merging into the oneness or totality of Creation by properly understanding the construction of its parts; in music there is the potential to feel this in some rarefied way. It states that when the prophet needed inspiration in order to prophesy he called for music - the conventional understanding here is that music soothes and uplifts, necessary conditions for prophecy.

            But it is much deeper than that. Music is an expression of the perfect harmony of individual components necessary to produce a new entity, a new experience. That is a necessary condition for prophecy, to take the finite components of physical life and use them to become a vessel for holiness, for revelation. In fact the words used there are "Ve'haya k'nagen ha'menagen - When the musician played", prophecy was achieved. But close attention to the words yields a sharper translation: "Ve'haya k'nagen ha'menagen - When the musician became the music"! Then prophecy was indeed achieved!

            These ideas are exceedingly difficult to put into words, as we have noted elsewhere. The words remain individual, isolated notes. They must be played correctly to be heard.

                                                         *    *    *
 
            Sefiras ha'omer is such a counting. The transcendence of Shavuos, Torah, is reached not by a single act which builds it, but by a deliberate painstaking building of each of the seven days of the seven weeks which leads to it. When that is done, Shavuos results. We work on the process, the pathway, not on the result, and the result happens of its own.

            The clearest illustration of this is that the Torah commands "You shall count fifty days" and yet we count only forty-nine. Why? Why do we not actually count the fiftieth day on Shavuos itself as the words clearly indicate? The answer is striking: we cannot count the fiftieth; it is pure transcendence, of another world entirely, beyond finite counting. It is Shavuos, the giving of the Torah. We would be limiting it by assigning it a finite number. It is not an element, it is totality. We can count the forty-nine finite, human stages; when we do so, Shavuos and transcendence arrive as a gift, as the amazing result of our attention to the fragments. In fact, we fulfil the Torah's command to count the fiftieth day by not counting it, by not limiting it to a finite number! That is the only way to reach Shavuos - to do all that we can and then to allow the kedusha to manifest.

            That is the nature of the spiritual - it takes effect on the correctly-used and prepared physical; it is the totality and the oneness which far transcends the sum of its miniscule parts. We count forty-nine, Hashem counts the fiftieth.

                                                         *    *    *
             And that is why we count from Pesach and not towards Shavuos. We cannot cause Shavuos; we can build the path. We build on the omer, on what we have as a beginning at Pesach. That is our focus: "Today is one day of the omer" - we have built one day; "Today is two days of the omer" - we have built two days. When we have built forty-nine correctly, Shavuos takes over! And we and our counting become a higher reality, "Ve'haya k'nagen ha'menagen".

 

             Counting is building. Some count specifically the personality traits in their seven sub-units of seven categories over the sefira weeks and work on each one intensely on its appropriate day - a real "riding of the wave" of time which can be done at this time of year. But even without this specific intention, the counting itself builds. There is an idea that when a woman counts the zayin neki'im, the seven days leading to the higher level she achieves with the mikva experience, she should actually count the days - not just assure that the required time interval has passed but actively and consciously count each day; the counting is building that level.
 
                                                        *    *    *
 
            That is why we count from Pesach rather than towards Shavuos; that is why Shavuos is called "Weeks", named for the very time we have counted; and that is a clue regarding why the mystical sefiros are thus named - the "countings" of the world.

            Perhaps now we can return to the problem with which we struggled in the startling opinion of the Ramban that sefiras ha'omer is not a time-caused mitzva. The Ramban is here revealing a most remarkable idea: the Torah is teaching us that contrary to what we may understand, time is not necessarily a fixed entity which causes certain changes and events; this time is here - it demands, causes, a certain response. Not necessarily. Rather, our actions, our mitzvos may be a deeper root yet. Not as we are used to thinking, that time is "k'via ve'kayma" - fixed and established; no, it may be dependent on us. Put most sharply, sefiras ha'omer is not a mitzva which is caused by time, but rather, time is caused by sefiras ha'omer! Our counting builds the reality!

            What a breathtaking flash of insight into the creative, causative power of Torah and mitzvos as the real "k'via ve'kayma", the underlying fixed basis of reality.

                                                         *    *    *
             And what an insight into the spiritual path. We do not wait for events to happen to us, for the uplift and blessing of the seasons and their holiness to come to us, we must build those things; we do not remain stationary in time as it washes over us, we must move forward actively to greet those great moments. The mystics say that if one waits for kedusha, holiness, it may be long delayed. One must go towards it; then it rushes toward the seeker.

            In the dimension of space we find this: on the regalim, the festivals of Pesach, Shavuos and Succos we have the mitzva of aliya l'regel - going, travelling towards the Beis Hamikdash, the center of kedusha in the space dimension. And specifically on those occasions, each one a focus of kedusha in time.

            The mystics had a custom of going out into the fields to greet the Shabbos; we say "Likras Shabbos l'chu v'neilcha - To greet the Shabbos let us go (towards it)." Shabbos, the center of kedusha in time, must be sought, must be approached, must be moved towards. That is the only way for it to be "m'kor ha'bracha", the source of blessing.

                                                         *    *    *
             Counting days, creating time. We should not be passively riding time; we should be building our lives, causing time to become real. Passively drifting through time allows time inexorably to dissolve life; building life by building its elements consciously and actively in kedusha causes time to transcend into eternity, and ourselves to become one with that great music.

This is an extract from "Living Inspired"

TAGS for this article: Sefirat Ha'omer | Time | Shavuot | Pesach