Passover and Counting the Omer


Passover and Counting the Omer


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Passover and Counting the Omer
Liberating and Elevating the Natural Soul

By Yechezkel Gold

Freedom from bondage marked the beginning of Judaism, and Passover therefore remains the foundation of our faith. Even in reciting kiddush over wine on the Sabbath, we mention the exodus from Egypt. Jews have fought tenaciously throughout the ages of diaspora to preserve their religious freedom. This freedom has always found vigorous expression within the indomitable Jewish spirit and insistence on truth, creative intellectual rigor and iconoclastic independence. This is consistent with the notion that the exodus from Egypt granted Israel eternal freedom, collectively and individually. It is the ability to rise above circumstances to achieve reality beyond.

In the last three hundred years, liberty has become an increasingly compelling and influential idea in Western culture and history, too. Unlike in Judaism, its expression has been to destroy the old ways, often with exaggerated, not necessarily desirable results. We understand that freedom means casting aside constraints. In Judaism, however, liberation has not meant discarding the old. Freedom only heightens a Jew's love and devotion to Torah and Mitzvot. The Torah's notion of liberty must be different from what modern Western culture has espoused. Let us explore how it differs.

Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneersohn, known as the Rebbe Rashab, related a parable of a wagon conveying a group of wise men from one city to another. On the way, the wise men conversed about Torah matters, each deep in thought. The wagon driver, too, immersed in his own thoughts, which focused on arriving speedily at their destination where he would receive payment. He pondered how he would spend the coins he would get for his work. Also the horse pulling the wagon had his mind bent on arriving, where he would receive his oats and fodder.

The thoughts of the wagon driver and horse, said the Rebbe Rashab, had no influence on the wisdom of the thoughts and speech of the wise men. The Rebbe Rashab's point in this parable is subtle and quite elusive. Although the horse pulling the passengers and heavy wagon did the main work here, the thoughts of the wise men remained pure and lofty.

So what?

Human reality, as in the parable, contains elements of Divine wisdom, i.e. Torah, of human thoughts for personal gain and advancement, and of frankly natural thoughts and impulses for satisfaction. Indeed, every person was created with all three tendencies, and each of these various energies has a vital role in our lives.

The natural soul, represented by the horse in the parable, connects us to the physical domain. These include not only breathing, eating and the like, but more generally, any involvement whose primary goal is to benefit the individual. The natural soul is selfish. When it is enlightened, the natural soul functions to benefit itself through the selfish rewards of Torah life.

The wagon driver is human. People are distinguished from animals by the primacy of spirituality and soul, and their expression through reason. The analogous level within the individual, then, seeks fulfillment through spirit. This level of soul yearns for contact with God, praying with passion and poring over Torah to gain true, spiritual satisfaction, as King David wrote (Psalms 119): "I rejoice over your utterances as one who finds abundant booty".

Perhaps intermediate between this type of energy and that of the natural soul is the search for the joy, harmony, stability, beauty and balance provided by Torah life.

The third level, represented by the wise men, is Divine service for the sake of Heaven, with no selfish motivation. It focuses on selflessly fulfilling God's will, living His will. This is the highest level represented in the parable, and it is achieved through renunciation of selfishness in favor of God's will. Only then does one attain genuine wisdom, viewing Torah, which is the essence of life, and living all of life truly and objectively.

At this level, the human becomes the vehicle for the Divine, similar to the forefathers Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov, who themselves were the chariot of God. The Divine, here, is also represented in quasi-human form, as the verse states (Ezekiel 1): "...and on the image of the throne is the image of the appearance of man upon it above." This is part of the significance of the Cabalistic doctrine that the Torah has 248 positive and 365 negative commands, corresponding respectively to the limbs and sinews of man. That is, through self-transcendence, the wise men give expression to the Divinely conceived ideal of man "on the throne", reflecting a Godly, rather than human, perspective. This is true liberation.

In Cabalistic terms, through ascending to the level Malchut, (the lowest of the ten levels of Divine emanation) accepting the yoke of Heaven through fear of Heaven, one gives expression to God's realm, known as Atzilut (the highest level of divine emanation) and as the Supernal Man (who is on the throne). Malchut itself is in Atzilut, above man's realm which is the creation. Nevertheless, Malchut also mediates between the two realms. Man's attaining the level of Malchut "opens the outer gate" of the King's palace. Attaining Malchut entails self sacrifice, going beyond the normal limits of humanity, to a Godly realm not bound by mundane considerations. Only by foregoing the normal, secure yet artificial trappings of conventional existence can a person really ascend to become an instrument of the Divine. This is the eternal spiritual significance of the exodus.

For this reason, Atzilut, though it is a domain with ten Divine emanations, each with a distinct character, is considered to be within the realm of the Infinite. Self transcendence reflects the Infinite. By achieving Malchut, a human being gains contact with the Infinite, the ultimate of freedom. This is the level represented by the wise men's Torah thoughts and words in the Rebbe Rashab's parable.

Becoming an instrument for expressing eternity within temporal, secular creation requires tremendous energy. The Godly soul, eminently reasonable, objective and stable, is connected to Godliness, but lacks the energy to extend the boundaries of the Divine to the temporal creation. This extension of the Divine realm is represented by the journey in the Rebbe Rashab's parable. If the Godly soul had this requisite energy, then temporal reality would not exist separately from the Godly realm, Atzilut: it would be subsumed within the Divine realm. But to extend the Divine down to the temporal requires additional energy, beyond what is already contained in Atzilut. The potential source of that energy is in the sparks of sanctity fallen from the shattered realm of Tohu, (as will be explained shortly) found in the natural soul.

Atzilut is the domain of unity. Its character, reflected in the Godly soul, is love, respect and connectedness to all, harmony and tranquillity, joy and peace. Its light is the light of Torah, the objective ideal. Because Atzilut is a state of repose and respect, it is stable, orderly and, like intellect, causes no changes, merely connecting with things as they are. It is reflected in the restfulness of the daytime of the holy Sabbath. It adds nothing to its own perfection.

The created, temporal, secular domain, however, is the realm of separateness. Things exist disjointedly, seemingly independently, without regard to each other. This state of affairs was engendered by an energy which was too great to be contained within the order of Atzilut. The domain in which that energy originated is called Tohu, and because it could not be contained, it shattered.

Thus, though Tohu is a higher and "more" Godly domain than Atzilut, shattering lead to creation of a lower domain. In shattering, the Godly content and energy of Tohu flew inaccessibly upward, and the near-empty and nearly meaningless husks of the original reality through which this tremendous energy was formerly expressed formed the created, lower worlds. There remained, though, some sparks of sanctity imprisoned within the husks, and this is the energy within the natural soul which has the power to extend the domain of Atzilut into the temporal creation.

Thus, consistent with the energy of its origin which could not be contained even by Atzilut, the natural soul is selfish and tends to disregard others. Also, not fettered by the sense of unity, objectivity and concomitant multitude of considerations which characterize the Godly soul, the natural soul is tremendously energetic and whole hearted. Thus, the Talmud relates that the prominent sage, Raish Lakish, was originally a robber who leaped over a river to rob Rabbi Yochanan. However, Rabbi Yochanan proposed that Raish Lakish use his prodigious energies for Torah, and when Raish Lakish accepted his proposal, he found himself no longer able to leap across the river. The cherishing, stabilizing perspective of Torah had already begun to contain the strident, uncompromising energy of his animal soul.

The tremendous energies of the natural soul have the capacity to rend the integrity of the Godly soul. When this liberated energy is improperly directed, i.e., when one sins, the result is further shattering. Thereby, the energies are more deeply embedded within the husks, causing iniquity, imbalance, and hopelessness. The joyful revelation of the Divine is temporarily suppressed until one sincerely repents. However, when the energies of the sparks of Tohu are liberated through employing them in Divine service, the Godly realm expands, becoming accessible even to us in the temporal creation. This expansion of Atzilut, of course, specifically regards the energies and expression of this spark of sanctity which was previously hidden and incarcerated within the natural soul and now is elevated to become a vehicle for the Godly. That is, the liberated natural soul's unreasoning, whole-hearted intensity contains the potential to ascend to Godly thoughts and acts.

To term the ascent from mundane selfishness to enlightened, Godly acts consistent with Torah a liberation may seem surprising. In Western conceptions, the notion of liberty has been associated with respect and indulgence of the individual and his selfish needs and desires - and I do not mean this condescendingly. Perhaps elucidating a passage from the morning prayers can illustrate the Jewish perspective on liberation.

After "Borechu" comes the benediction: "Yotzer Ohr". Here, we first praise God as "O King, who alone was exalted from yore, praised, glorified and extolled from days of the world." Rebbe Rashab discerns the level of Keter, the Crown, in this passage, and two aspects of that crown. First, God the King is called "alone". This is the level of true, absolute freedom, eternally exalted above any external considerations. Second, the reflection of that level of absolute freedom, the King is "glorified... from the days of the world". This is glorification from, meaning above, the days of the world. It depicts the King as above the creation, but nevertheless relating to it, i.e. as omnipotent, omniscient, etc. so that relating to creation does not change or detract from the King at all.

The passage continues by relating that God creates ministers, His angels, "all of whom stand in the heights of the universe and proclaim with awe in unison aloud the living God and everlasting King. All of them are beloved, pure and mighty, and all of them in dread and awe do the will of their Master...."

We understand that creation of these ministering angels ultimately reflects the level of absolute freedom described above. These angels are the commandments, each of which proclaim the awesome majesty, magnificence and great goodness of their Creator. Expressing this absolute goodness within the created realms is the expression of God's absolute freedom and goodness. Further in this passage, we learn that all the ministering angels "take upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of heaven one from the other, and give sanction to one another to hallow their Creator; in tranquil joy of spirit, with pure speech and holy melody, they all respond in unison, and exclaim with awe: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is full of His glory".

That is, loving respect and openness to others, rather than frank self indulgence as in Western thought, is the true expression of freedom and sanctity. When we recite this prayer, our soul, too, ascends to glimpse the reality described.

Rebbe Rashab explains this idea regarding the three Sabbath prayers and meals. The Sabbath evening expresses the soul's intense yearning to escape the spiritual confinement of the secular days. The morning is the time when the soul truly rests, delighting in the unity with God. By late afternoon, toward the end of the day, the soul is refreshed and no longer needs to rest. This is the pinnacle of Sabbath, when the soul is rested.

That state of being totally rested is the state of absolute freedom attained on the first night of Passover. No longer needing anything for oneself, not requiring to escape the humdrum of secularity nor to become refreshed with the spiritual sustenance of Sabbath, the soul now naturally expresses its own profound goodness and positiveness like in the late afternoon of Sabbath. No longer trying to "move up in the world" or even to enjoy the fruits of success, the soul, now truly liberated, bursts into joyful songs of praise on Passover's first night, glowing with love and positive regard for all.

This reality is presented to Israel as a gift on the first night of Passover. Subsequently, analogous to God's creating ministering angels, the souls must find ways to express this overwhelming goodness in life. For this, the natural soul must transcend its selfish tendencies and ascend to Malchus, to open the gate to this sublime Divine realm.This is the work of Counting the Omer, leading to Shavuot.

The natural soul's motivation to ascend to Malchut is fear and love of God, each deriving from Malchut itself as it attaches to the Oneness of Atzilut, as will be explained presently. We experience some of this fear and love, for example, in our desire to conform, a much maligned notion. Modern Western thought overemphasizes individualism and nonconformity to the extent that people are driven - in their urge to conform to the false idol of nonconformity - to a parody of individualism.

The urge to conform derives from our profound desire to be part of the whole. The idea of being isolated and detached is almost always anathema to us. This desire to be part of the whole is called love of the whole. That whole of which we speak is termed "the congregation of Israel" in Cabala, and is an aspect of Malchut. Moreover, the thought of being cut off and isolated from the whole causes us great anxiety. These are instances of the love and fear which motivate the natural soul to ascend to Malchut. When the natural soul attains the level of Malchut, it attaches thereby to the Oneness of Atzilut. From that perspective, Malchut is called One, in Cabala, as the verse states: "Hashem is One."

(The foregoing did not intend to parenthetically attack differences between people, but rather the ideology of nonconformity, the notion that wanting to be like others is a weakness of character. The urge to conform is an important, genuine and respectable component of humanity, along with the many other characteristics which make each person unique.)

In ascending to the level of Malchut, as we stated earlier, the natural soul liberates the holy sparks through love and fear of God. Thus, we learn that there were 288 sparks in the original shattering of vessels, 72 corresponding to the numerical value of chesed, loving kindness, plus 216 corresponding to the numerical value variously of gevura, power, or the inner emotion which engenders using power, yir'a, fear.

The intense surge of liberation of holy sparks is revealed in the evening inaugeration of Sabbath, the time of the Sabbath Bride who comes to cling to her Husband. Their full unity extending even to our secular creation is expressed during the Sabbath day, a time of love and tranquillity, as described above.

More pointedly, on Seder night, the soul automatically flies upward, in love with and uniting with God, its liberator. This state of merger brings true freedom, and the successive period is for absorbing and elucidating the meaning and implications of this Godly merger. This is the remainder of Passover, during which the aura of this holy merger is still immediate, and the ensuing period of counting the Omer, when the Godly perspective is drawn even into the secular domain. The culmination is Shavuot, festival of the giving of Torah, represented by the wise passengers in the parable.

Attaining Malchut and thereby accessing Atzilut does something more than elevate the soul. It actually elevates the Divine realm of Atzilut itself. By elevating holy sparks, Malchut itself is elevated and connects with the realm of Infinity in a more encompassing and higher fashion. The potential for this elevation is infinite, limited only by the spiritual root of the holy spark liberated concomitantly.

The elevation of Malchut is termed "an arousal from below" because it employs the energies from the created worlds to ascend to Atzilut to stimulate and receive "an arousal from above", from a realm of reality quite above and different from that of the created worlds. Until ascending to Atzilut, revealed reality is secular and mundane. Only an arousal from below through accepting the yoke of Heaven, especially in the practice of Torah and Mitzvot, reveals the arousal from above, the Godly, infinite character of reality called Atzilut.

We can compare this to a journey. Before arriving someplace, we do not know what it is like even though it is through our own efforts that we arrived there. Our efforts to arrive are like the arousal from below, and what we find there is like the arousal from above. This is analogous to the driver and horse in the Rebbe Rashab's parable. They are crucial to supply the energy for arriving at the destination, but can not attain the Torah wisdom of their passengers. That wisdom is attained only by transcending the horse and driver. Beyond this, however, the Tohu energies of horse and driver can bring the wise men to new and never before explored territories. Anyone who has tasted the delicious and exotic waters deep within the territory of Torah can attest to this.

Every arousal from below provokes an arousal from above, and the potential for elevation is infinite, limited only by the extent and character of the arousal from below. Thus, Malchut reveals the infinite potential in Atzilut.

Thus, for example, from a lower level of arousal from below is revealed that there must be a God, connection to God through faith, perhaps despite contrary evidence of the senses and of the mundane mind set. A higher level of arousal from below transcends the mundane mind set and connects to God whose existence is independent of the world and requires no confirmation. A still higher arousal from below reveals God's awesome reality in a manner that renders mundane matters insignificant.

Similarly, in the realm of performing the Mitzvot, a lower arousal from below would bring a person to remember that he is obligated to do the Mitzvot because of his allegiance and commitment to them or because of fearing reprisal or loving God and His ways. A higher level of arousal from below brings intense involvement in the mitzvah. A still higher level of arousal brings performance of the mitzvah with little consideration of anything else. Thus, for example, one would give great amounts of charity without regard to personal security. (Obviously, one can not aspire to the latter kind of level for selfish motivations; it must be genuine. If one has not really reached the level, acting as if one has would usually lead to failure. Also, obviously, great strictness in performing some Mitzvot such as charity to others, at the expense of other Mitzvot such as those regarding love and respect of family who are also among those others whom one is commanded to love as oneself, often defeats the whole purpose.)

The main blessings of each festival are the new, increased awareness of their significance. Each year, Passover and counting the Omer is different from the preceding ones. The self-transcending arousal from below - refraining from Chometz, eating Matzoth, respecting the laws of the holiday, and counting the Omer, imbued with the spiritual exertion to attain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the significance of the festival - liberate each individual in a unique way and bring each person to their own, special encounter with the Divine which is the real, eternal content of Judaism.

Yechezkel Gold is a psychotherapist who lives with his family in Jerusalem


from the April 2000 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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