“‘Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord.’” — Leviticus 23:16
We’re used to counting down the days when we have something exciting to look forward to. But when it comes to the festival of Shavuot, we count up. Why?
Shavuot, or Pentecost in the Greek, marks one of the most important days in human history. On that day, we celebrate the revelation of God and the giving of the Torah to humanity. Surely, it would make much more sense to say, “49 days left until the big day, now 48, only 47 left,” and so on. Yet the Bible commands us to start at 1 and count out loud every day until we reach 50.
The practice of counting the days between Passover and Shavuot is known as “counting the Omer.” It is named for the barley sacrifice, called the omer that was brought during this time when the Temple stood. At the end of these seven weeks, a new and different offering was brought – one of “new grain.”
Something changes in these intermediate weeks. They are intended to be introspective and transformational, so much so that what a person can offer God in the beginning is profoundly different by the end. At the beginning of the 50 days, a journey begins. By the end, we are ready to receive the Word of God.
That’s why we count up, and not down. As each day passes, we become more, not less. Like climbing the rungs on a ladder, we ascend toward Heaven one step at a time. By the time we reach the top we can appreciate the distance that we have spanned. Passover celebrates our physical redemption, but it takes seven weeks until we are able to experience our spiritual redemption on Shavuot.
The offering that we bring to God on Passover is reminiscent of animal food, but the one that we bring on Shavuot from the “new grain” is food fit for man. Over the seven-week period we refine ourselves and rise above our animal nature. By day 50 we are the human beings we were intended to be “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27) and we are ready to keep His Word.
Counting the omer lends us a paradigm that is applicable year-round. When tackling the big goals in life, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. How will we cross such a great distance? How can we accomplish such lofty tasks? Maybe it’s better not to even start! But the message of the omer is to take the journey one step at a time.
Take that enormous task in front of you and break it into smaller parts. Step by step, rung by rung, you will make your way all the way to the top. And when accomplished, you will not be the same person who you started out to be!
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