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L O V E,   A W E,   M E R C Y

Adapted from Likutei Torah by Rabbi Yossi Marcus[1]


“Count seven weeks for yourselves—u’sifartem lachem—from after ‘the Shabbat,’ from the day you bring the wave offering…”


The Meaning of Sefira

The Hebrew word for count—u’sifartem—suggests “luminance” as well. An illuminant stone is called “even sapir.” The ten sefirot are so-called to connote luminance.

So the verse is saying that in counting the seven weeks—u’sifartem lachem—you should draw upon yourselves the luminance of the ten sefirot.

(Tzemach Tzedek’s gloss: See Pardes 8:2, citing Sefer HaBahir (the Book of Luminance): “Why are they called sefirot? To connote the same meaning as “the heavens relatemisaprim—[the glory of G‑d]…” See also Zohar on Teruma 136b: “What is the meaning of relate?… That they illuminate….”)

To understand this let us first introduce the following:

Run and Return

The counting of the omer comes between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot.

Pesach is the exodus from Egypt; Shavuot is the giving of the Torah. Before the giving of the Torah, the Israelites had to count seven complete weeks, and only then were they able to receive the Torah.

To explain:

In Ezekiel’s vision of the celestial spheres he speaks of angels running to and fro—ratzo and shov, running and returning. In the higher realms, everything exists in a state of ratzo and shov

On Pesach we experienced ratzo, running; on Shavuot we experienced shov

Pesach, the exodus from Egypt, was a rushed affair. The Paschal lamb was eaten in haste—running, ratzo.

They were running because of the immense revelation of Divinity that was apparent when G‑d Himself set them free. (In the future redemption, we are promised that we will not need to escape in haste.)

The Pesach experience is one of running from “below to above”; Shavuot is one of return, receiving the Torah, which is the revelation of the Divine will below.  On Shavuot G‑d descends upon Mount Sinai. We experience the drawing down of Divinity from “above to below.”

[During the exodus we were running away from the evil of Egypt into which we had deeply sunk. Had we remained there another moment, we would have been lost. In the Messianic Era, we and the world will have been elevated to the point that there will be no need to run.

On Pesach we were running away from ourselves, from the physical. Divine revelation sent us upward, away from the physical—ratzo. The giving of the Torah on Shavuot, represents the opposite: applying Divinity, the laws of the Torah, to the physical world—shov.]

Exodus Daily

We are enjoined to remember the day we left the land of Egypt all the days of our lives. In every generation, we must see ourselves as leaving Egypt—every day.

A new day, a new exodus.

This exodus takes place during the recitation of the Shma, when we experience love of G‑d—and you shall love your G‑d [and thereby flee from the slavery and Egypt of our earthly consciousness]. Indeed the Shma concludes with the phrase: I am Havaya your G‑d—I have taken you out of the land of Egypt

The buildup to this exodus takes place during the portion of the prayer called pesukei d’zimrah, verses of praise. During this section of prayer, the individual meditates upon the behavior of the heavenly hosts, which prostrate themselves, as it were, to G‑d. He ponders the ophanim, and angelic beings, who with great tumult sing praise to Him. They are all in a state of constant bitul, selflessness.

During prayer, one contemplates that the life-force of all the worlds stems from the luminance of His Name alone. Whereas the soul, in giving life to the body, enters and enclothes the very essence of its vitality within the body—G‑d remains beyond the world, exalted and transcendent.

During prayer, the worshipper reads the verse from Psalms, Your kingship is a kingship over all worlds…. He recognizes that even the millions of worlds that exist are naught in comparison to His light. He understands that one compared to a trillion is still something; it is one part of the total sum. But between a trillion and infinity there is no relationship.

Through meditation on all the above, a person reaches a state of ratzo during Shma, loving G‑d with all his heart and leaving Mitzrayim (Egypt)—the boundaries and borders that conceal Divinity and give the false impression of an independent reality.

This is called exodus from Egypt.

The Patriarchs

Now, the prayers were instituted by the Patriarchs. The Patriarchs were embodiments of three attributes:

Abraham=Chesed (Kindness)

Isaac=Gevura (Severity)

Jacob=Rachamim (Mercy).

Every prayer is made up of three types of verses: verses of kindness, severity, and mercy.

There are verses that arouse one’s feeling of love toward G‑d and culminate in the fulfillment of the verse, And you shall love your G‑d. These verses are related to kindness, to Abraham, ratzo.

Now, in the second portion of Shma, we read about gathering your grain [which seems to be contrary to a heavenly consciousness]. Nevertheless, one’s primary occupation remains the study of Torah—work is deemed secondary.

Man is like a tree. The essential aspect of a tree growing in the ground is the fruit that grow upon it. Yet, the tree also possesses thorns, leaves, and a trunk. Still, the primary component is the fruit.

So, too, with man: the main aspect is the fruit, i.e., Torah and mitzvot—one’s physical needs are secondary, like leaves to the fruit.

Such a lifestyle is born out of love, the attribute of Abraham.

Isaac represents the attribute of severity, fear, and awe of G‑d. [Correspondingly, there are verses of prayer that speak of fear and awe of heaven.]

Stone Hearts

Jacob symbolizes mercy. Mercy is necessary for a person whose heart is like stone, who despite his meditation upon all the above does not achieve a love of G‑d.

This [lack of responsiveness] is because he is extremely enmeshed in the transient affairs of the world. He considers the earthly reality to be separate and independent from the divine reality. Hence—his heart of stone.

The remedy is for the person to arouse abundant mercy for his soul. This is achieved through the recitation of verses of mercy in prayer:

with your great mercy have mercy upon us…our Father, Merciful Father, have mercy upon us and place understanding in our hearts to understand and be wise…so that we shall not be shamed, forever.      

[What is this shame that we are praying for protection against?]

We know that man cannot perceive Divinity and remain alive. But after he passes on, Divinity can be seen.

While alive, man’s soul is enclothed in a body that obscures its vision. In this state, it appears to the soul as if the world were separate from the Divine.

But after leaving the body, the soul once again perceives that, in truth, G‑d is the only reality. It comes to the maddening realization that its previous conception, while inside the body, was a mekach ta’ut [lit., a purchase made on a false assumption].

The shame from this realization is immense. When the soul remembers that all of its thoughts and aspirations were focused on the transient nothingness of worldly matters, it is overcome with shame.

That is why we ask now, with your great mercy have mercy upon us and place understanding in our hearts, so that we may understand even now, while the soul lives in the body, that, in truth, all is completely naught as before creation. Then, we shall not be shamed forever


But all of the above speaks only of the G‑dly soul. The exodus of the soul leaves the body behind. The body [and the animalistic soul that animates it] remain animalistic. In order to receive the Torah, to celebrate Shavuot, the body, too, must experience self-nullification.

This is achieved through the waving of the omer and the counting of the omer.

The omer was an offering that consisted of barley—animal food. In the higher worlds, there exists the antecedent of the physical animal. The supernal chariot features the faces of “animals”. These supernal animals are the root of all physical animals, and the root of the animalistic soul that is within man.

Through waving the barley—animal food—the Kohenim [the priests] elevate the supernal animal.

This is followed by the counting of the omer, which serves to elicit the transcendent lights of holiness and subdue the animalistic soul. For the next forty-nine days, the forty-nine attributes of the “animal” are refined and elevated.

Only then is one a vessel to receive the Torah on Shavuot.

[For a more elaborate treatment of the counting of the omer in Chasidic thought, see http://www.meaningfullife.com/html/themes/Holidays/SefiratHaOmer-Index.htm.]     



[1] From a discourse of Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "the Alter Rebbe."


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