The Omer marks the 50 days traveling the desert from Egypt to Sinai. It also marks the wave offering of the Temple on the second day of Passover. The wave offering was a measure of flour made from the first sheaves of barley grain that had been reaped.
What is the deep significance of counting the Omer? The late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, writes that the Talmud regards barley is a maakhel behema, a food fit for beasts. Why do we offer animal food in the Temple? Could it not be construed as an insult to God?
We know, he continues, that human beings share many things with animals. From a certain perspective we are a link on the biological chain, and nothing more. Judaism teaches that it is our task to rise above animality alone, the rule of instinct, and to realize our higher natures.
According to the Talmud, the purpose of the mitzvot -- the entire system of Jewish law -- is to refine human beings. That which begins as an animal instinct can, through the guidance of Torah, be refined to an expression of the Divine. The barley offering is a food for animals, but sifted and refined, can be offered to God. The Omer represents the aspiration to ennoble instinct. We are animals, but we are not only animals. Sifted and refined, we are worthy to approach God.
This is a reflection for the first day of the Omer. Join the conversation by visiting the Omer liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot.