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Iyar 5768

Days of the Omer and Refining Character Traits

Written by the rabbi

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1. Why During the Omer Counting?
2. Three Commandments

3. The Days of the Omer According to the Zohar
4. From Barley to Wheat
5. Rabbi Akivas Students

6. Summary

"Count for yourselves, from the day after the festival, from the day of your bringing the Omer wave offering" (Leviticus 23:15).

Why During the Omer Counting?
The Emor Torah portion contains the commandments relating to the Omer counting period, from the sixteenth of Nissan until the sixth of Sivan. The Talmud (Yevamot 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students, and all of them died during the Omer counting period because they did not show proper concern for one another.

Why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die precisely during these days? Is there any connection between the Torah commandments applying to the Omer period and the deaths of the students at this time?

Three Commandments
The Emor portion contains three commandments that pertain to the Omer counting period: a) the commandment to harvest the Omer barley offering, b) the commandment to bring the Two Loaves offering, c) the commandment to count the Omer.

The first commandment is that of the Omer harvest. In the Torah, it is written "Speak to Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, and you reap its harvest, bring an Omer of your first harvest to the priest" (Leviticus 23:10).

They would harvest the Omer on the sixteenth of Nisan, the day after Passover, and then they would wave it in the Holy Temple. So long as this Omer had not been waved, it was forbidden to partake of the new grain.

The second commandment is to bring the Two Loaves of wheat bread on Shavuot to the Holy Temple and to place them there: "You shall bring a new meal offering before God. From your dwellings bring two breads for waving" (ibid. 17). Describing this commandment, Sefer HaChinnukh writes the following:

"The commandment is to bring a new meal offering from wheat on Atzeret, to offer leavened bread from the new wheat on the Shavuot festival, and this is called "mincha chadasha" (new meal offering), and this consist of two loaves, as it is written, "From your dwellings bring two breads for waving..." (Commandment 307).

The third commandment is to count the days between these two occasions (i.e., between the harvesting of the Omer on the day after Passover and the offering of the Two Loaves on Shavuot). It is thus written in the Torah, "Count for yourselves...from the day of your bringing the Omer wave offering, seven Sabbaths...and you shall offer a new meal offering to God, from your dwellings bring two breads for waving" (ibid. 15:17).

The Days of the Omer According to the Zohar

The Holy Zohar (3:97) explains that when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they were immersed in great impurity, and during the period of the counting of the Omer they lifted themselves up, one rung each day, until they attained great holiness. By virtue of their holy status, they were fit to receive the Torah on Shavuot.

And the Tzitz Eliezer writes in the name of the Holy Ari: "We find that when the Children of Israel left Egypt, they were immersed in forty-nine levels of impurity, and the Holy One, blessed be He, elevated them up to the source of sanctity, where even the impure is pure, and He brought them up to Him through forty-nine levels of sanctity" (17:75).

The question arises: How did the Children of Israel manage to lift themselves up from impurity to purity? After all, they had not yet received the Torah, and they had not yet been commanded to fulfill the 613 commandments. Through what means were they able to ascend to the level of sanctity?

We must conclude that during this period the Jewish people refined their character traits, so that by the time they stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they had perfected themselves in this respect.

On the verse, "Israel camped [vaychan] there, before the mountain" (Exodus 19:2), Rashi asks why the word for camped, "vaychan," appears in the singular instead of plural form. He answers (based upon the Mekhilta) that this verse teaches us that they were all like a single individual, with a single heart - unified. Unification is achieved through the perfection of character traits. We may therefore conclude that they were busy honing their character traits during this period.

From Barley to Wheat
Sefat Emet (Shavuot, 5637) asks why it is that regarding the reaping of the Omer and its waving in the Holy Temple barley was harvested, but for the Two Loaves wheat bread was brought. He proceeds to explain that this matter alludes to the spiritual process that the Children of Israel underwent during this period.

Barley is food for animals; wheat is food for humans. In the period between the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah, the Children of Israel elevated themselves from the level of animals to the level of human beings. Therefore, for the commandment of the Omer, barley is harvested, for they were on the level of animals at this stage. Then, after fifty days of refining their character traits, they reached the level of man and offered wheat loaves, food for human beings.

Rabbi Akivas Students
We have learned that the principle purpose of the Omer counting period is to perfect character traits. Just as our forefathers perfected themselves in this regard during these days, we too must make use of these days to elevate ourselves from the level of animal to that of human being. Therefore, there is a custom to study Pirkey Avot during this period, for this work is most conducive to the refinement of character traits.

Bearing these considerations in mind, it makes sense that Rabbi Akivas students should have died precisely during these days, for these are days of character improvement, and according to the sages, they died because they did not show proper consideration for one another, an obvious character flaw. Therefore, it was precisely during these days that the attribute of divine justice lashed out against them for not showing due concern for one another.

During the days of the Omer counting, the Children of Israel rose from the level of animal to that of human being by working on their character traits. They reached a level whereby they camped before Mount Sinai "as a single individual with one heart." This improvement is alluded to by the sacrifices that the Torah commands us to offer up - a barley offering (food for an animal) on the day after Passover and a wheat offering (food for a human) on Shavuot. It appears that because these days revolve around the perfection of character traits, Rabbi Akivas students were punished at precisely during these days for tainting their characters by failing to show proper consideration for one another.

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