By Rabbi Naphtali Hoff
Pesach ended the other night and the immediate, desperate reaction from Jews worldwide was Cookie Monster-esque. “Chametz!” (Not sure if anyone broke into the “C is for chametz” refrain, but it wouldn’t shock me if they did.)
Lest the reader think that I am some cave-dwelling hermit that subsists on potato starch and macaroons all year ’round, allow me to share that I also love a good slice of pizza, particularly when I have been fed a wide range of matzah-based concoctions for eight consecutive days.
So I get the fact that chametz is tastier and a much sought-after post-Pesach treat. But do we really need to ingest a double-zayis of leaven within 15 seconds of havdalah? While sitting upright, no less?
Think about it. You just spent the past month or more readying for and then experiencing Pesach. Countless hours of preparation were invested to ensure that we spend a week or more in a leaven-free (and, as most of our wives would have it, dust-free and gunk-free) environment. We celebrated a holiday of freedom by underscoring the importance of controlling our impulses and deflating our egos, as symbolized by Hebraic alacrity in the face of Hashem’s swift and complete victory over Pharaoh. And within but a few moments we are ready to throw it all away?
That’s one reason as to why Hashem gave us the mitzvah of sefirah.
You see, Pesach does not really end with that final havdalah. In fact, our sages teach us that Pesach is just the beginning of a spiritual odyssey that culminates with Shavuos. It is then, following weeks of counting and (hopefully) growing that we stand before our Maker ready to receive His Torah anew. As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch points out, we begin count from the day that we offer the korban omer (which marks the first, barley harvest) to underscore the fact that material goals are not ends to themselves, but the start of a nobler quest. You can have your cake (or pizza) and eat it too, so long as you make sure to recite the proper blessings with fervor.
When Israel has already reached the point which for other peoples represents the ultimate goal of nationalist endeavor, when it already has freedom and independence, land and soil, fruit and grain on its own fields and meadows, at the stage where others cease to strive further and to count, there Israel first begins to count, both days and weeks. And it goes on counting up to the day when it celebrates the bestowal of (the Torah). (Collected Writings Volume I, Feldheim, p. 114)
Sefirah presents a paradigm shift, one that strikes at the core of national identification and achievement. For the other nations, a booming harvest is alone a reason to rejoice. Farmers invest much time and effort into its success, and entire nations rely on it for their collective sustenance. But the Torah, in instructing us to count from the day of the harvest, reminds us that it is just the beginning, the means through which we can begin to focus on our loftier purpose, receiving the Torah.
This is the deeper connection between Sefirah and the period that links Pesach Shavuos. Rav Hirsch writes in Horeb (pp.84-90) that each of the festivals represents a different aspect within the development of the Jewish nation. On Pesach our nation experienced its physical birth; for the first time we began to develop as an independent nation. Shavuos, on the other hand, represents our nation’s spiritual birth. Only with the acceptance of the Torah could we recognize our true, spiritual essence, fundamentally separating ourselves from all other nations.
The true fulfillment of Pesach occurs through its Atzeres, Shavuos. It is then that we infuse deeper meaning to our national identity, well beyond the limitations of physicality and material bounty. But we cannot simply “arrive” at this level of sanctity. It takes continuous work and effort, a step by step approach that elevates us from the spiritual dregs of Egypt to the loftiness of Sinai. That’s where the upward counting of Sefirah comes in.
May we merit utilizing the Sefirah period properly, to focus ourselves on our true purpose, a spiritual climb that will bring us, be”H, to the loftiest levels of sanctity and holiness.