04/09/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2012

Counting the Omer: Awakening From Above, Awakening From Below

When trying to understand the significance of Sefirat Haomer, the counting of the Omer -- the 49-day period from Pesach to Shavuot -- we can ask the following question: Why do we count up from one to 49 and not the more common way of counting down to an anticipated event, that is, from 49 to one? In addition, as we count the Omer each day from below to above, we mention the names of the corresponding sefirot, God's channels of Divine influx that allude to the spiritual, emotional and psychological rectification of that day, yet the order of these sefirot are the opposite, from above to below. (It is interesting to note that the term Sefirat Haomer, usually translated as "counting the Omer," can also be read as the sefirot of the Omer.) Many answers are offered to this question. This is but one of them.

Similar to the in-out/out-in dynamic of the holidays of Rosh Hashanah through Simchat Torah, the counting of the Omer has an up-down/below-above thrust to it. On Pesach night the high intensity energy is coming from "above," thus the term Pesach/Passover denotes God as it were leaping over all cause and effect and the natural laws of both the physical and spiritual worlds in order to bring us out of Egypt. Seder night the energy is flowing down from above to below in a unique and powerful manner that no other time of the holiday cycle can equal. Then, according to Kabbalah, God withdraws the energy and we begin through our own efforts the 49-day process of ascent until reaching a similarly intense energy on Shavuot, the holiday marking the giving of the Torah at Sinai.

This process mirrors the phenomenon whereby God created light on the first day of creation and then hid it away (Rashi on Genesis 1:4). A similar idea is taught in the Midrash which states that an angel teaches a fetus the entire Torah in the womb, but at birth touches it right above the mouth and it forgets everything. Why reveal light and Torah only to hide them away? In these two cases we understand that man, in order to grow to be an "image of God" needs to make the effort of revealing light and Torah himself, as spiritual growth can only be attained by hard work and exertion. The impression of the hidden light and previously revealed Torah deep within our consciousness serves as guide posts and reminders of where we are coming from and where we are going to. By revealing on Pesach such a heavenly light we then have a concept of what we want to work toward, what is even possible. Without this we would be clueless to the purpose or goal of our endeavors.

The importance of man's efforts in the time the Temples stood is the significance of our beginning the count by cutting an omer, a measure of barley. The priests ground it and sifted it through 13 increasingly finer sifters till the finest of flour was offered on the alter to indicate our efforts and the beginning of the harvest period. According to the Midrash, God says: If you bring an omer of barley for Me, I will give you your whole harvest.

Since the energy of Pesach night, coming from above to below, is that which propels us and gives us the impetus to climb the mountain to Sinai once again, we mention the sefirot, representing Divine influx and intervention also from above to below, a reminder of the initial powerful experience. This idea is repeated in life through those special moments whose power and impression last long after the event. In some cases these moments keep us going a life time. Despite the above-to-below order of the sefirot, we count from below to above, as it is now our efforts that are called for. In this way counting the Omer includes both equally important dynamics and the lessons thy teach us.

Although the energy from Pesach night is from above to below, we are taught in Kabbalah that the 10 plagues which preceded our leaving Egypt were spiritually from below to above. Each plague in a sense "upped the ante," until the final plague of killing of the first born of Egypt, the corresponding punishment for the crime of drowning all newborn Jewish boys. Therefore, we see that the preparation for leaving Egypt begins from below to above and culminates in the night we are liberated when it came from above to below.

We are taught that God gave us two mitzvot to do right before leaving Egypt -- circumcision and the Pascal lamb -- in order that we would do our part as well. This idea is wide spread in Jewish thought, that man must act in even a small way in order to open the gates for God to respond from above. The Sages taught that God says: "Open to Me as the opening of the eye of a needle and I will open to you as the great enterance to the Temple hall" (Zohar 3:95a; Pesikta Rabati 15:6).

There is a famous story in the book of Kings where a poor women pleads of Elisha the prophet to help her in her impoverished state (Kings 4:1-7). He asks her if she has anything in her house and she responds just one jar of oil. He tells her to borrow vessels of her neighbors and to shut her door and to pour from the jar of oil into the vessels. A miracle occurred and the oil kept flowing till she ran out of vessels, when the oil stopped. From this we can learn that as long as we can provide even a little oil to begin with, there is potential for it to increase, as long as we have vessels, they can be filled. This is the secret of bringing out new vessels for Pesach, in order to hold the new light pouring down from above. On Shavuot the sacrifice for all of Israel is two loaves of bread, from the new wheat harvest, "a new offering for God." So that we merit to receive anew each year the two tablets of the law, we need to bring two loaves of bread from the new harvest, the fruits of our own efforts.

The same dynamic occurs in the preparation for receiving the Torah on Sinai as the coming out of Egypt. When reading the account of receiving the Torah we see this in many ways (Exodus 19:1-20). First, we came to the desert of Sinai "as one person with one heart," the only vessel able or worthy to hold the revelation of Sinai (Rashi on Exodus 19:2). Moses climbed up and down the mountain a number of times in order to speak to God and afterwards to report His words to the people. He then told God each time the peoples response. Lastly, the entire nation prepares for three days in order to be ready to receive the Torah. One is struck by how many times Moses goes up and comes down the mountain within a short few days. Finally, as Moses brings the people to the foot of Mt. Sinai the Torah states: "And God came down upon Mt. Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and God called to Moses up to the top of the mountain" (Exodus 19:20). The Midrash teaches that God had decreed from the beginning of creation that higher reality could not completely descend, nor lower reality entirely ascend. At the giving of the Torah, God annulled His decree, as symbolized in this verse and God and man transcend previously defined borders and parameters of relationship (Midrash Tanchuma. VaEira 15).

Each month has a letter associated with it. Although we count Omer during three different months -- Nisan, Iyar and Sivan -- only during the month of Iyar is the Omer counted the entire the month. The letter associated with Iyar is the vav, whose shape is a vertical line, alluding to a ladder or a man standing erect. Our relationship with God, other people and our own self perception is constantly changing, going through endless cycles of ascent and descent, revelation and hiding, closeness and estrangement. The vav represents both "straight light," descending from God into the worlds and "returning light," the energy rising above created by our spiritual service. This is the secret of the Omer period wherein we learn to recognize and integrate both lights and all they represent. The vav symbolizes the channel and conduit connecting God to man, upper and lower reality which meet at Sinai. Shavuot, in fact, is celebrated each year on the sixth of Sivan -- six being the numerical value of the letter vav.

There is much discussion in a wide range of Jewish sources relating to the terms "arousal from above" and "arousal from below." When are our efforts the determining factor and when is it God's doing? Where is the fine line between individual autonomy and destiny and God's plan and fate? There are an infinite number of variations to this theme which are at once highly philosophical as well as quite relevant to our daily lives. The dynamics discussed above relating to Sefirat Haomer, counting the Omer, reveal a complex weave of human effort and Divine Providence, of our will and His will, of free choice and determinism.

Counting the Omer and the accompanying preparations for receiving the Torah each year allows us to delve into these matters over a seven-week period and make real efforts to understand the deep paradoxes of human existence. Through these efforts we create new vessels to integrate fully the light of Pesach as we prepare to receive new insight and illumination on Shavuot.

This is a reflection for the second 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.