COUNT DOWN OR COUNT UP?
This Shabbat will be the 42nd day of the Omer. Six of the seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuot will have passed.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Spain 13th cent.) poses an obvious question. If the Omer count represents the time that the Israelites, having left Egypt, anticipated receiving the Torah on Mt Sinai, why do we count up? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to count down? 40 days until Shavuot…39, 38, 37…
Maimonides (d.1204) compares the count to two people, deeply in love, who have been parted. They are anxiously counting off the days to when they will be reunited. It would make more sense, says the Chinuch, to count down to the appointed time. Only 5 days left, only 4, only 3…
He answers that since the road to Shavuot is long, it would discourage us if we began counting forty-nine days until Shavuot. It is easier to commence the count by focusing on what we have accomplished. One day has passed; two days have passed, etc.
Rabbi J B Soloveitchik (d. 1993) offers a different explanation. He suggests that G-d did not tell the Jews when they left Egypt the precise date when they would receive the Torah!
When Abraham left Charan, G-d commanded him: “lech lech – Go… to the land which I will show you.” But He didn’t say which land. When Abraham and Isaac are sent to the Akeidah, G-d commanded him to “go…to one of the mountains that I will designate for you” Again, He didn’t specify the location in advance.
Rabbi Soloveitchik says that matters of deep religious faith are not given to us with precision and certainty, right from the outset. Full details will be revealed only nearer the time. By definition, faith implies uncertainty. Thus, the Jews who left Egypt would not have known exactly when they would receive the Torah. They did not know, in advance, that it would be after 49 days. Therefore, when we, today, re-enact our ancestors’ countdown to Sinai, we also count upwards as our forefathers did when they left Egypt. We remind ourselves of their uncertainty, which is an integral component of religious experience.
This Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim, commemorating 55 years since we regained Jerusalem and the Kotel. We rejoice in what we have achieved and we hope and pray that we are now approaching the final lap of our journey towards Mashiach and a better world. But we do not know for certain. We cannot know. All we can do is to anticipate each day and do our best to deserve our ultimate redemption. Shabbat Shalom.