Parshat Emor: Countdown to freedom

Sfirat Haomer comes and creates continuity between initial freedom and complete freedom.

Western Wall cleaned for Passover. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Western Wall cleaned for Passover.
In what seems like interesting timing, we always read Parshat Emor during the time of the Counting of the Omer (Sfirat Haomer). What makes it interesting is that we read about this mitzva in this very Torah portion: “And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete.
You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the 50th day...” (Leviticus 23:15-16) The Counting of the Omer is the bridge connecting Passover with Shavuot (The Festival of Weeks). On Passover, we mark the Exodus from Egypt and the great miracles that occurred for Am Yisrael when they were liberated from slavery in Egypt and began their journey toward the Promised Land, Eretz Yisrael. On Shavuot, we mark the historic event of Ma’amad Har Sinai – when the Torah was given to the Jewish nation on Mount Sinai. By counting the Omer – a daily count of 49 days – we bridge and connect Passover with Shavuot.
Where does the need for this connection stem from and what is its purpose? We can understand this by examining the term “freedom.” It is well-known that the concept of freedom adopted by the Western world is based largely on the Exodus from Egypt. Faith in the sacredness of the Bible is what led the world to believe that the idea of freedom is a sacred one; it is what led to the abolishment of slavery; it is what created the profound sense that man does not have the right to rule over another.
However, freedom is a concept which is imperfect.
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For example, we all understand that a child raised without discipline will pay a heavy price as an adult despite the fact that discipline inevitably limits the child’s freedom. Likewise, there is no one who would claim that jailing a person who broke the law and committed a crime is unjust, despite the fact that the authorities are obviously seriously limiting his freedom.
Therefore, despite freedom being based largely on the Bible, it requires a precise definition.
Moreover, in simple terms, the concept of freedom includes within it only freedom in its negative sense; meaning, canceling one man’s control over another.
But the following question has echoed in the history of philosophy: Does freedom contain its own internal essential content? Does it “have” anything, or does it just “not have” anything negative? Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of the Land of Israel in the years 1921-1935, defined the concept of freedom saying that the core of freedom was that man should be “loyal to his own inner essence, to the Tzelem Elokim – Divine Image that is within him, and with this trait he can feel his life is purposeful and worthy of its value.”
With these amazing words, Rav Kook offers a new outlook on the basis of which we can understand why Sfirat Haomer is necessary as a bridge between Passover and Shavuot. Am Yisrael earned its freedom in the Exodus, but it was just freedom in its simplest sense of being liberated from the burden of slavery in Egypt – freedom of “have not.” On the other hand, Shavuot marks the nation receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai when it gained the kind of freedom that allows each person to be loyal to his own internal essence; to feel that his life has a purpose that provides value, and that he must work toward the correct fulfillment of this purpose. This is the freedom of “have.”
If we were to disconnect Passover from Shavuot we might assume that the initial, basic freedom is enough to celebrate. But Sfirat Haomer comes and creates continuity between this initial freedom and a complete freedom – receiving the Torah, taking on the responsibility of fulfilling the ideological purpose of a life of morality, hessed (loving-kindness) and justice.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.