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Torah Attitude: Parashas Emor: Counting turns barley into wheat
It appears that the Omer offering and the New Meal offering have a special connection with Pesach and Shavuous. Mordechai and his students were saved in the merit of the Omer offering. Our reading and studying of the various offerings is considered as if they were brought in the Temple. Pesach is a Day of Judgment for the produce; Shavuous is a Day of Judgment for the fruit of the trees. With the bringing of the Omer offering we express our understanding that the Hand of G'd is behind all laws of nature. Everything which happens to the Jewish people, even what appears to be nature, is guided by the Divine Hand. After 49 days of counting, the low spiritual Omer offering of barley leads to the high level wheat of the New Meal offering and the giving of the Torah.
The impurity of the Jewish people was so severe that they needed a count of seven times seven to purify themselves.
The Omer and New Meal offerings
In the middle of this week's portion, the Torah deals with the Festivals in the Jewish calendar, starting with the weekly Shabbos and continuing from Pesach throughout the year to Succos. Between the mention of the Pesach and the Shavuous Festivals there is a small portion dealing with the commandment to bring the Omer offering at on the second day of Pesach in the Temple. This is followed by the obligation to count the Omer from that day for seven weeks ending at the Festival of Shavuous when the New Meal offering was brought, accompanied by a number of animal offerings. No other offerings of the Festivals are mentioned in detail in this week's portion. It appears that the Omer offering and the New Meal offering have a special connection with these Festivals; the Omer offering on Pesach and the New Meal offering on Shavuous. It further seems that the 49 days of the counting of the Omer between Pesach and Shavuous combines the two offerings as well as the two Festivals.
Haman and the Omer
What is the significance of these offerings and this counting? The Midrash Rabba (Vayikra 28:6) mentions a number of instances where our ancestors were saved in the merit of the Omer offering. One incident, also mentioned in the Talmud (Megillah 16a), occurred during the time of Purim when King Ahashvarous commanded Haman to take Mordechai and parade him throughout the streets of Shushan on the Royal Horse on the 16th of Nisan, the second day of Pesach. Haman went to look for Mordechai and found him teaching his students the laws of how to bring the Omer offering. As Mordechai saw Haman coming with the horse in the distance, he got worried. He said that Haman was most likely coming to kill him and warned his students to run. Mordechai stood up, wrapped himself in his prayer shawl and began to pray to prepare himself for what he believed were his last moments. The students, however, decided to remain with their teacher. They declared that whatever happened to Mordechai would happen to them and continued to study. Haman approached and asked the students what they were doing. They told him that they were studying the laws of the Omer offering that was brought by the Jews in the Temple on this second day of Pesach. Haman asked whether the offering was made of gold or silver. The students said no, it was made of barley. Haman then asked whether it was made of a tremendous amount of barley and was very expensive. The students said no, ten small coins were all that it would cost. Exclaimed Haman, "Your ten small coins had the power to push away my ten thousand silver coins" (see Esther 3:8-11).
Study is considered offering
Haman understood the importance of not only the bringing the Omer offering, but merely studying it. As the Talmud (Menachos 110a) teaches that at the time when we do not have the Temple, our reading and studying of the various offerings is considered as if they were brought in the Temple. It was no mere chance that on that very day when they were studying the laws of the Omer offering, Mordechai and his students were saved from the hands of the wicked Haman. It was not so much Haman's appreciation of their study as their own dedication. It was a time when they knew they were in danger and nevertheless they continued to study because they were aware of the importance of studying Torah in general and the laws of Omer offering in particular.
Days of Judgment
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) explains that the Omer offering is brought on Pesach, a Day of Judgment to determine how plentiful the produce of this year will be. Similarly, we bring the New Meal offering and species of the new fruit on Shavuous because it is a Day of Judgment for the fruit of the trees.
The Hand of G'd
Rabbi Dessler explains that with the bringing of the Omer offering we express our understanding that the Hand of G'd is behind all laws of nature. As the Maharal says, this offering was brought to show an appreciation that nature is not governed by its own laws but by the Hand of G'd. At the time of Mordechai, the whole story of Purim is shrouded in the cloak of nature. The name of G'd is not mentioned even once in the whole book of Esther. And as the Talmud (Chulin 139b) says, the name Esther is hinted at in the Torah when G'd says "I will hide Myself". The literal translation of Esther means "hidden". When the students studied the laws of the Omer with Mordechai, they acknowledged that everything that was happening was not just a sequence of natural events. Rather, they knew that everything was being guided by the Hand of G'd. In the merit of this understanding, the Jews at the time were saved.
Nothing by chance
At the time of the Temple, this Omer offering was brought when we celebrated the exodus from Egypt. This is a time when G'd revealed himself to the Jews and all of mankind with open miracles, teaching that He is in control of every part of the universe and all the elements follow His instructions. As the Ramban explains at the end of Parashas Bo that from the great and public miracles at the time of the exodus we have to learn that everything which happens to the Jewish people, even what appears to be nature, is guided by the same Divine Hand. Absolutely nothing happens by chance. The appropriate time of the year to reinforce this message is at the time when we celebrate the miraculous events of the exodus to remind us of the miraculous events of our everyday life which we call nature.
Barley and wheat
The commentaries point out that barley is generally considered animal food, whereas wheat is mainly used for human consumption. On Pesach, the Jews had just left Egypt and were still under the influence of the Egyptian culture. The Egyptians served animals as idols and they were very far removed from the Holiness of G'd. The Omer offering of barely reflects the low level of spirituality of the Jewish people as they left Egypt. It was so low that they were merely at the level of someone fit to eat barely. It would take forty nine days of counting towards the Festival of Shavuous to elevate them and build them up to a high spiritual level to receive the Holy Torah, and to bring them to a level where they were fit for the wheat of the New Meal offering. The Zohar (Vayikra 97) explains that because of the impurity of the Jewish people at the time of the exodus, we do not say the complete Hallel for the last six days of Pesach. Hallel is only said on the first day when a special Divine spiritual elevation allowed them to bring the Pesach offering. Upon the second day of Pesach and for the next seven weeks, they had to rid themselves of the impurity of the Egyptian culture and reach a high spiritual level to enable them to accept the Torah at Shavuous, when we once again say the complete Hallel.
Says the Zohar, just as it is necessary for a woman who has become impure to purify herself by counting seven days before going to the Mikvah, the impurity of the Jewish people was so severe that they needed a count of seven times seven to purify themselves before being ready to accept the Torah. On the Seder night, we say that every person is obligated to consider themselves as being part of the exodus from Egypt. Just as the Jews in Egypt were told that there was a higher purpose in the exodus to bring them to Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, and in their longing and excitement for that day they immediately started counting towards it, so does every Jew in every generation follow in their footsteps and count the seven times seven days of purification to free ourselves of foreign influences of impurity that surround us. Each day of counting brings us closer to our personal acceptance of the Torah as we celebrate the Festival of Shavuous.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network