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A Mitzva You Can Count On

by | Feb 19, 2004

Some years ago, a friend of mine was going through a crisis. His small business was failing, debts were piling up, and the tax men were breathing down his neck. It was not his first financial setback, either, and things were looking very bleak.

He remembered a turning point: it was one morning when, finishing breakfast and about to rush out the door to get to the store on time for the milk and bread deliveries and the early impatient customers, he stopped and forced himself to take the extra few moments for Birkat HaMazon, (the blessings after a meal). To his surprise, he found that instead of adding to his burden of anxiety, it calmed him down.

Birkat HaMazon is the mouthful after the mouthful. In it we don’t just thank the Creator for sustenance; but also for Jerusalem and the land of Israel, for Torah, for the Holy Temple, for the covenant between Him and the Jewish people—some of the big things that make our everyday worries seem small by comparison. It takes time, but it puts things into perspective and makes them more bearable.

No, the blessings did not miraculously save his business. But it was the business that failed, not him. He and his family held together, and eventually he found a new job and their finances stabilized. But he learned an important lesson from the experience: that far from being a burdensome intrusion, the mitzvot can serve as a spiritual anchor in time of crisis.

This time of year, there is a special mitzvah called Sefirah, Counting.* From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, we count forty-nine days. In this way we mark the transition from the Egyptian exodus, the physical liberation from slavery, to the spiritual re-birth of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Just as everybody knows about Passover and hardly anybody knows about Shavuot, so everybody knows the famous phrase, “Let my people go”; but they don’t know the rest of the verse, “…that they should serve Me.” The whole purpose of the redemption from Egypt was not to go out for beer and pizza (or matzah and cream cheese), but to hear the word of G-d and to become His people. The Sefirah reminds us of this.

History often appears to us as an open-ended series of accidental or arbitrary twists and turns. It is hard to see anything beyond the escalating chaos all around us. That is why we need the Counting. It’s a simple thing, over in a moment. But it has this anchoring power.

The blessing we make before counting is like the blessing on other mitzvot: Blessed are You, O G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us on the counting of the omer, but in this case, we can suggest a special meaning. For to be sanctified means to be somehow separated from the physical world, to transcend the merely temporal. All mitzvot do that. But by counting these days we anchor ourselves with the knowledge that we live in the midst of meaningful progression. The great events of the Exodus may have appeared to those living through them as a series of unrelated calamities, another inexplicable shift in the cosmos. But there was a meaningful progression. The same is true for us. By means of the Counting we can extricate ourselves from the chaos of earth; and in this way we sanctify ourselves.

Such things are important in a time of crisis. They help to get you through. So that even if the business falls apart, you don’t.

* Its full name is Sefirat HaOmer, Counting of the Omer. The Omer refers to the barley offering made in the Temple in Jerusalem (some centuries before the advent of Islam) at the beginning of the harvest on the second day of Passover.

Rabbi Chaim Friedlander explains the deep link between the Omer and Passover: Just as G-d showed through the miracles of the Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea that He is the Creator and Ruler of nature, so also the new harvest demonstrates His control of nature on a daily and seasonal basis. The infinitely complex process required to transform dirt and dead seed into barley is no less miraculous than turning the water of the Nile into blood. The only real difference is that the former occurs once in history, whereas the latter is part of our common experience, so we take it for granted.

Sources: Rav Dovid Klein for the story (not about himself); Sefer HaChinuch; Sifsei Chaim,
Vol. 3.

Reprinted with permission from