The Mitzvah of counting the Omer is a very interesting concept. There is nothing parallel to it in the other Mitzvot of
the Torah. We count each day, articulating how many days have passed since the Omer offering would have been brought, and we enumerate the weeks that have passed as well. Ultimately, after seven weeks of counting, we arrive at the festival of Shavuot, when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai.
The mystics have found a relationship between the days of the Omer and the seven lower sefirot – spiritual spheres. Each of the seven weeks corresponds to one of those spheres and each day of the week similarly corresponds to one of those seven spheres. This results in two layers of spiritual energy corresponding to each day – one for the day of the week and another for that week of the Omer.
The sixth chapter of Avot includes a Mishna enumerating 48 ways in which the Torah is acquired, 48 attitudes and character traits which serve as enablers of Torah absorption. Some commentators suggest that each day of the Omer one should focus on developing one of these traits until by the end of the count, when Shavuot rolls around, one has developed one’s character to be a fitting abode in which the Torah can reside.
What has one to do with the other? Torah study is ostensibly just a subject of study, albeit a broad one. When one studies history, physics or geology it need not be accompanied by developing an historic or physical character. Personal character is not typically a factor in obtaining knowledge of any other study area. A grade or academic degree is awarded on the basis of knowledge and understanding of information. It is strange that to acquire Torah the Mishnah lists character developments rather than the collection of data.
There is an oft told story about Aristotle (although who can verify whether it actually happened), who was seen walking in the market place chewing on a rabbit leg. A person of Aristotle’s stature was expected to be a refined person with a higher sense of etiquette. When challenged by his disciples Aristotle allegedly shrugged and said that Aristotle in the market place need not be held to the standards of Aristotle in the lecture hall.
On the other hand the Talmud relays an incident concerning Hillel the Elder. Two men made bets on whether Hillel could be angered. The stakes were very high, 400 Zuz. Confident he could anger Hillel, the fellow waited until Friday afternoon while Hillel was bathing. He then pounded rudely on the door, crying “who here is Hillel, who here is Hillel.” Despite the obnoxious and disrespectful demeanor, Hillel wrapped himself and kindly asked what he could help with. The man came up with a random question, not at all pressing. “Why is it that Babylonians have round heads?”
Hillel responded, “That is a very important observation you have made. The reason Babylonians have round heads is because their midwives are not trained will in the delivery of babies.”
The man thanked Hillel and Hillel returned to his shower. A moment later the man repeated the same rude pounding on the door, shouting for Hillel. Once again Hillel emerged and patiently answered another silly question. This happened several times in a row, with Hillel’s equilibrium remaining steady and calm. Frustrated that he had lost the bet, the man lashed out at Hillel for causing him to lose 400 Zuz by his refusal to be moved to anger. Hillel smiled and responded that it is better he should lose twice that much rather than Hillel should become angry.
Hillel may have started off an affable fellow, but the Torah study which he had mastered further refined and bettered him. Torah study is different from any other subject in science or academia. To accumulate Torah knowledge without incorporating its message, to become a dry dictionary of Torah data without absorbing and integrating the lessons of the Torah is to miss the entire point of it. One has not acquired the Torah unless one becomes an appropriate vehicle to contain the Torah. This is why character development is key to acquiring Torah.
We refer to a Torah scholar as a ‘ben Torah,’ a son of Torah, and we refer to a person of good character as a ‘ba’al midot,’ a master of character. Knowing Torah doesn’t guarantee mastery over it. One can amass Torah knowledge without absorbing its lessons and therefore the term ‘ben’ is more appropriate. Character, on the other hand, is evident in one’s conduct and therefore it is appropriate to refer to one who has it as a ba’al midot, a master of character.
We count the days of the Omer, the days leading toward the receiving of Torah, so that we relate to the fact that it takes work and development to become worthy of the Torah.