Sacred History

As we stand in the midst of Sefirat Ha-Omer, the period of counting 49 days from Pesach to Shavuot, we read the very parashah which contains the instructions for this count. Parashat Emor teaches:

“From the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering–the day after the sabbath–you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week–fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord” (Lev. 23:15).

This selection from parashat Emor is traditionally recited each night of the Omer before the ritual counting. However, while the biblical text is explicit about our need to count, the reason for counting is a mystery. The rabbis of the Talmud understood this period as a countdown to Matan Torah, God’s gift of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

The connection between the biblical pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot) and the sacred events of Jewish history introduces a conceptual framework for understanding Jewish theology. Franz Rosenzweig argues that these three festivals map out the linear path of redemptive history. Passover corresponds to Creation–a time of renewal and rebirth in nature as well as the story of the birth of our free Jewish nation. Shavuot corresponds to Revelation–the moment in which God’s will is transmitted to the Jewish people and a covenant is established through Torah. Sukkot corresponds to Redemption–a time in which we live under the sheltering embrace of God’s Presence and enjoy the full bounty of God’s blessings. Creation, Revelation and Redemption are the three pivotal benchmarks in our sacred history. We gain a taste of this spiritual progression in history each year with the themes and liturgy of the Festivals.

This progression of sacred history can be mapped in another way to reflect our developing relationship with God. The rabbis, and especially the mystics of our tradition, understood our relationship with God through the analogy of a passionate love affair. From this perspective, our map of “Creation-Revelation-Redemption” can be articulated as the three-stage process of a marriage. Betrothal-Wedding-Union is another beautiful conceptual framework for understanding the holiday cycle. Pesach represents our betrothal to God, who took us out of Egypt and set us apart to become God’s holy nation. Shavuot represents our wedding day–standing under the chuppah of Sinai and receiving the Torah, our ketubah. Finally, Sukkot represents “yichud”–our union with God as we dwell together with God in the sukkah.

This approach to the holiday cycle is one of many ways to understand the ritual of counting the Omer. Once a couple has gotten engaged, the excited young bride and groom eagerly count the days until the wedding. So too, the young nation of Israel eagerly anticipates the consecration of its love relationship with God at Sinai. On that day, we receive our marriage contract–the Torah–which binds us to God in commitment and responsibility. From that moment on, we eagerly await the growing and deepening of our love until we have built a home together of perfect union and peace.

The publication and distribution of the Rabbinic Fellows’ Commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.