There are two general outlooks one can have when they approach a Jewish holiday/event. Either to try and find the meaning of the holiday as a day in and of itself, as in what is the significance of the day? Or to try and find its purpose within the totality of Jewish observance, as in how does this fit within the context of my personal journey, within the theme of the current time of year?
When it comes to Sefiras Ha’Omer, little emphasis is placed on the seven-week period as an independent event, it is primarily a bridge between Pesach and Shavuot. However, when we try to examine the Sefira in the context of a bridge, several inconsistencies arise.
Firstly, the Sefira has been overtaken by Lag Ba’Omer. There is an undeniable stress on not listening to music, “sefirah beards”, etc. all signs of mourning that don’t really play into the theme that the Sefira is supposed to take. Historically, we are reliving the period when our ancestors left bondage and were heading to receive the Torah, a period of seemingly indicative delight.
Not only are the rituals we preform seemingly misplaced, but the very message is incongruous. The students of Reb Akiva died because they didn’t give enough respect to each other. The obvious lesson we are supposed to take from it is about Ahavat Yisroel – working to be a better friend, a better person in the context of societal decency. The Sefira, however, is all about refining one’s personal middos, working with oneself. A necessary process of self-refinement that is a precursor to receiving the Torah. Why and how then do we commemorate these seemingly diverging concepts simultaneously?
Secondly, the very approach of the Sefira seems a tad far reaching at best, and at worst – a futile and an almost absurd endeavor. Every day we count off another Sefira – another combination of spiritual emanations that is supposed to represent another character trait we are supposed to refine. However, by allotting each Sefira a mere 24-hour time period, how much room are we really giving ourselves for personal refinement? By attempting to cover all 49 different traits within such a short span of time, pragmatically how much are we expected to accomplish? The very premise seems flawed right at the onset.
How should one who wants to properly utilize the Sefira effectively approach it?
The key to understanding the Sefira, is to properly understand the story of Reb Akiva and his students. R’ Akiva is famous for saying, “Love your fellow Jew as yourself.” R’ Akiva lived his entire life as a symbol of love and respect, and yet that is what his students lacked more than anything else?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the problem with R’ Akiva’s students wasn’t that they didn’t possess love, rather their love was misplaced. Being so consumed by their need to help their fellow, and their boundless passion towards serving G-d, they took it as their life mission to convince each other to serve G-d in the way they found most appropriate. They were so consumed in their own personal service of G-d, that they remained ignorant of the fact that a connection with G-d cannot be objectively defined. There is no better or worse way to serve G-d, there is only your way. The aftermath of the whole story is R’ Shimon Bar Yochai. R’ Shimon brought the mystic side of Torah back to the people, brought the emphasis of Judaism back to the sincerity of one’s heart over the meticulousness of one’s practice.
This approach is a quintessential predecessor to receiving the Torah. This is also what the avodah of the Sefirah is really about. We count a different sefirah every day not to stress that we have to work on every trait every day, but rather as a reminder that everyone is holding at their own sefirah. You might be working on yesod sheba’netzach (a personal favorite), but someone else could be holding at malchut sheba’gevurah. Counting the sefirah is an exercise of open-mindedness and inclusiveness. Every day should be seen as glimmer into the world and struggle of another. We are all walking together towards the mountain to receive the Torah, but each at their own pace with their own load. Only when we don’t try to define and assess the journey of another by our own limitations, do we allow true unity and service of G-d to exist. Only when we walk together as equals, can we camp at the base of the mountain “as one man with one heart”. Then, and only then, can we fully and wholeheartedly stand together as one and re-receive the Torah.