Sefiras Ha’Omer: the BT Nemesis?

YY Bar-Chaiim

The typical Baal Teshuva is driven by a burning search for meaning. This often finds satisfaction within the plethora of thrilling spiritual experiences to be discovered within Torah life. But what happens when such a BT encounters one of those supremely thrilless rituals like Omer Counting?

Granted, in some communities there are spiritually gifted individuals who serve as models for infusing this Mitzvah with great fervor. Nevertheless, its technically monotonous nature takes its toll when, at least after the first weeks pass, some may find themselves mumbling the words with as much excitement as those who are “thrilled” to be done with it already!

So is there any way around this BT nemesis? The following is one perspective, relevant to every Jew, culled from the profoundly sober teachings of Nesivos Shalom.

“Just like the four cosmic worlds can be spoken of in terms of Asiya (Deed), Yetzira (Spirit), Briah (Mind) and Atsilus (Soul), so too there are four types of piety; each one a world unto its own.

“There is a class of pietists who are people of deed… They are scrupulous in physical and material matters, never indulging their appetite nor material pleasures, even when permissible.

“… Higher than this is the Service of spirit… No materialism has sway here, whatsoever. (Such a person) need not devote to overcoming appetites and materialism, but rather (invests in) a purely refined, unblemished Service (i.e. prayer).

“… Next is the world of mind… where no evil exists, whatsoever. It is a supremely spiritual world. (Such a Jew) elevates and devotes himself to lofty conceptions and emotions pertaining to Divine Service, until his very heart and flesh rejoice in the Living G-d.

“(Yet) even higher is the world of Soul, wherein not the slightest trace of materialism exists… (This can be explained) through the words of the Mishna [Shab. 66: B; Mishna 6: 9]: “Sons go out with connections; royalty go out with bells.”

~ N. Sh. I, Chossidus, 2 ~


An historical interjection: When parents used to take their children outside, they would tie their shoelaces to their own to ensure they wouldn’t get lost [Bartinura]. Thus, the question arises: Is this a form of carrying and thus prohibited on Shabbos? The Mishna rules that while dragging something along by your shoelace is technically carrying, in this case it’s permitted since parents and children share an inherent “connection.” So too do the bells worn by royalty express something intrinsic to their status and thus are not considered as being carried.

In jumps the Mezritcher Maggid (1710-1772). His spiritually penetrating interpretation of this Mishna sheds light on the nature of going “outside” the world of orthodox religious convention, explains the Nesivos. While this is generally a grave problem, there are two exceptions: Those who “royally” serve H’ and those who do so as “sons.” According to the Maggid, the former are totally immersed in the world of Briah/Mind. These are the Talmidei Chachamim who can rely upon the “bells” of Torah learning ringing in their heads to shield them from the onslaught of impure, worldly attractions. They are capable of engaging the non-Orthodox without being influenced by them. The “sons”, the Maggid teaches, function on an even higher level, called Atsilus,which we roughly translated as soul but literally means nearness or communion. This virtually divine sphere is reserved for those rare individuals who feel naturally at one with their Creator, far beyond their specific Torah knowledge. Like a young child feels about his parent, this Jew feels totally “connected” to H’.

To be sure, we see examples of this connection within those classic chassidic stories about little shepherd boys, or some other innocently uneducated Jews, who at one time or another are overwhelmed by their love for their Creator. The conclusion is always the same. They have NOTHING to give Him other than some seemingly very insignificant little thing, like a recital of the alphabet, a whistle or a song, which they proceed to offer with total devotion… until one of the local tsaddikim hear a heavenly voice declaring that this “little” prayer saved the entire community! Which brings us back to S’firas Ha’Omer. It is one of those seemingly insignificant little things, explains the Nesivos [vol. II Omer, 6], that can change the world or, more accurately, worldS. As per the custom to say at the conclusion of each counting, as printed in many siddurim: “…and through this (Mitzvah), may there flow an abundance (of Divine input) into all the worlds.” Accordingly, the Midrash teaches [VaYikra Rabba 28]: “One should never take the Mitzvah of Omer lightly, since it was through the merit of Omer-counting that our father Avraham inherited the Holy Land.” But could that really be? Simply by counting “today is x days in the Omer” the celestial U.N. would decree that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jews – for eternity!?

Indeed, concludes the Nesivos, it is PRECISELY because of the utter thrillessness of this Mitzvah that the first patriarch was able to serve his Maker with the purest, childlike devotion.
To be sure, this total purity of intention is the necessary component for inheriting the Land. As the Nesivos taught last week (Avos 4:4) about the connection between being meod meod shafel ruach, “very, very low spirited,” and the Land being called tova meod meod, “very, very good.” One is directly dependent upon the other. A thoroughly humble Jew will pine to come to Israel and vice versa.

Perhaps this also alludes to the aforementioned four levels of piety: There’s the arrogant deed doer, the humble spiritualist, the very humble learner and the thoroughly humble child. I.e. while doing godly acts is a tremendously important step in the process of Divine Service, if one stops there he has not only neglected to reign in his spiritual life but is taking pride in it! The serious Jew will accordingly give priority to prayer, which inherently involves the cultivation of humility. Yet, here too, the trial of pride digs in its claws. Meod, Meod! The Divine conscience will not give us peace within even the most heartfelt prayers until we emerge with renewed dedication to serving our Maker within two more dimensions: mind and soul.

A tall order? Certainly for the average BT who may find it difficult to maintain a steady and concentrated Torah learning regimen. To such a person it may even be a cruel slap in the face to imply he’s destined to wallow in the world of pride!
Ah – that’s why we’re given Sfiras HaOmer. It’s THE Mitzvah for BTs! Finally, we too can reach the peak of religious purity. Perhaps we can even lead the pack. For all we have to do is draw on that basic belief that got us into this business in the first place:

The belief in being “sons with connections.”

23 comments on “Sefiras Ha’Omer: the BT Nemesis?

  1. I’ve always considered Parshas Tazria-Metzora to be “my” parshah, similar to the way in which a man might feel a special connection to his Bar Mitzvah parshah. I first went to shul on Tazria-Metzora, right after Pesach 1974. I was overwhelmed by the physical beauty of the synagogue itself, but I also remember the profoundly simple lesson of the Haftarah. The Haftarah tells the story of a general who had “tzaaras,” some kind of skin condition, possibly leprosy. The sick general goes to the Navi, who tells him all he has to do is bathe in the River Yarden and he’ll be cured. That’s all? The general is infuriated. The navi must be making fun of him! He had expected the navi to give him some really complicated instructions to follow. Incredulous, the general’s servant says to him,”If the navi had told you to do something really hard you would have done it, so you won’t do this because it’s too easy?” The general decides his servant is correct, goes to bathe in the River Yarden just like the navi said to do, and voila, the skin condition disappears. Well, I didn’t mean to give a shiur in Nach (that’s Rabbi Reisman’s job) but the point of this Haftarah is obvious. Hashem isn’t telling us to build a Sukkah or kasher our kitchens or fast for twenty-six hours, all of which we would do with fiery BT enthusiasm. No, all Hashem wants of us is to spend eight minutes counting the Omer every day for seven weeks. Maybe that’s too easy, we would have preferred a zestier spiritual challenge, but hey, those are the Divine instructions for those forty-nine days. Sometimes the Yetzer Horah calls on boredom as his biggest ally.

  2. This is not the final version of my post, and may have been posted by accident.
    I know I posted the final, edited version. Where is it?

  3. “…but please do so respectfully”

    Not to mention truthfully! To know the truth about an Orthodox group one is not part of, one has to do considerable homework.

  4. Ben-David,

    Please feel free to disagree and even vehemently debate the issues presented by other commenters and writers but please do so respectfully. If you are looking to disparage and/or malign others and large sections of the Jewish community, this is not the place.

  5. You’ve said alot, B-D, and I question how much of it is geared to constructive interchange. Actually it appears to be more into grinding an axe and besmirching… but let me not try to peg you on that.

    Rather, if you would, please try to show in your next comments that you’re actually interested in getting to the truth behind the issues brought up in this post and not necessarily winning. If so I’d be glad to offer you a few enlightening perspectives.

  6. YY:

    1) Do you really think Chassidim have an exclusive on meaning and d’veikus?

    Maybe they just have an exclusive on theatrics?


    Which leads us to:

    2) “Shopping list love” isn’t less sincere or real than the earlier stage of “romance” – it is in fact more real, a true living together.

    It’s the perfect antidote to the rampant narcissism of our times – because it means thinking about someone else other than yourself and your “feeeeeeeeelings”.

    This aspect of day-to-day living in G-d’s presence seems to be EXACTLY what the Nevi’im meant in their marital metaphors.

    As opposed to the superstitious, spectacle-driven, self-centered relationship of the gentile/pagan world to their “higher powers”.

    Your post seems to be based on some assumptions that spring from that immature, non-Jewish mindview: for example, valuing the thrilling rush of passion over true, painstaking, hard-won tzidkus and devotion.

    In this and similar converstations with chassidishe BTs, there is a disturbing echo of the Christian assertion that grace and love trump law and the hard work of tikkun.

    Living and working the mitzvah system is true love of G-d. Bending one’s will to Torah is the way to attach oneself to truth – and to G-d.

    This is not always enjoyable! It does not always spark passion – indeed it often evokes opposition and conflict from deep within the self.

    But it’s real.
    And passion often is not real.

    This is especially true of the “look how frum I am” dress-up-dveikus that bedevils both BTs and FFB society in this narcissistic generation.

  7. “very doubtful that most people can walk the fine line between sincere pursuit of deep meaning in mitzvot and the more superficial ‘thrill seeking’”

    This is probably the biggest issue the Klal has with chossidus as a movement, B-D. I agree that it’s a tricky business. But is the alternative to develop a culture of “shopping list romance”?? I doubt this is what the Neviim meant when they referred to the marital metaphor.

  8. I’ve often heard a similar mussar insight to Ron’s re:emphasizing the positive and not the negative (then again, I tend to run in yesh chofetz chaim circles). It does seem that the ability to be mekabel mussar has declined. Perhaps, that’s due, in part to the inability to properly give mussar. Nonetheless, it’s my personal experience that people react better when pointing out their great potential rather than telling them where they are falling short. This, IMHO, is similar to the emphasis on positive reinforcement in teaching and parenting courses.

  9. “we can teach, enhance, improve our mitzvah performance without ‘catastrophizing’ its present state”

    This is a fine point, Ron. Once a problem becomes a “catastrophe”, the soul is sucked into a maelstrom of helplessness, which never engenders divine growth.

    The other side of the coin, however, is when we idolize self-help. It’s like trying to fly by either popping a balloon for “fuel” or blowing it up for a “lift”. Neither will get us into Shomaym.

    On a more sophisticated level, when we get comfortable with either stroking or flaggelating the “self”, any suggestion of tapping into the selfless nature of a godly life looms monstrous. The only solution is to find a way to CONSTRUCTIVELY shake up the self, which varies from generation to generation, community to community and ultimately individual to individual.

    But the principle remains. Perhaps the Lcha Dodee puts it best, right smack in the middle of the transition into Shabbos:

    “His’oreree, His’oreree, ki va or’ech, kumee or’ee”.

    The presumpton is that MY light (or’ee) can only emerge after being shaken up (his’oreree) with anticipation of G-d’s light (or’ech).

    Shavuous is THE time for G-d’s light, as per Mes. Megilla: Ora = Torah. Omer is repsectively the time for the his’orerus. But how?? That’s what the Nesivos comes to answer…

  10. Ron: your observations about the shift in emphasis in modern mussar is very interesting – and counter-intuitive: By most objective yardsticks, life is much less violent, frustrating, and precarious for most Jews than it was back then – yet that generation could take a much sharper challenge to their egos than our own.

    Very interesting.

    In the general terms of this thread, I am still very doubtful that most people can walk the fine line between sincere pursuit of deep meaning in mitzvot and the more superficial “thrill seeking”.

    The relationship between Hashem and Am Yisrael is cast by the prophets in terms of a married couple. Well, I call my wife from work every day – but it isn’t always rose petals and chocolates. Sometimes – most times! – it’s just a shopping list. And those conversations also build our connection.

  11. My rebbetzin, YY! And by the way: You wrote a terrific piece, and the fact is, just reading this can add a lot of meaning to this mitzvah for any of us, and I would not want to be mistaken for suggesting otherwise. Small increments of additional meaning as to what we do can repay us over and over for our entire lives, and thereafter as well, so thank you.

    I also agree that mediocrity and mere normalcy are not sufficient goals for any Jew, and for BT’s these are indeed the antithesis of what got them here in the first place.

    I guess what I really mean is that I think there is some cost to making this point in a way, though, such that people might discover a “problem” they didn’t even know they had, rather than considering approaches such as yours to be opportunities to enhance their avodas Hashem. In my early years, for example, I began reading (in translation) so much mussar that I began to feel pretty cruddy about myself, even hopeless. I discussed this with a rebbe / mentor who said, yes, it is possible to overdose on mussar, though he focused on the phenomenon of becoming paralyzed by a perceived need to weigh your motivations at every instance. Many modern gedolim, including in particular Rav Hutner, who came from a mussar background taught that in our time and place, a more positive emphasis was appropriate. The same lesson can be taught, but without the kind of “breaking down” of oneself that was once considered necessary and was particularly associated with the mussar schools of Kelm and Novardok. Rav Hutner synthesized the more positive aspects of Slabodka mussar with a mystical, quasi-hasidic approach and built a system where motivations and ambition were of course understood to be central, but the emphasis was on the positive, the possible, the aspiration to gadlus ho’odom — not the impending crisis.

    I do think, therefore, we can teach, enhance, improve our mitzvah performance without “catastrophizing” its present state.

  12. Bob: We share the concern over “thrill a minute” seeking. To find the music in doing Mitzvos as “sons with connections” is certainly not expected to come so easily. But sometimes we’re given a unique opporutnity. According to the Nesivos, S.haOmer is one of those.

  13. Shavua tov. The comments so far are quite intriguing. Let me begin to respond.

    First, I must say that Mark is impressing me greatly with his sober grasp of key points. His “Judaim is about…” (#3) says it all. His “Perhaps we should try to improve together instead of accepting mediocre Judaism as the norm,” says even more!

    This post, like previous ones I’ve shared,completely revolves around that ethic.

    So yes,Ron, I would confirm my choice of “nemesis”, at least as far as BT’s are concerned. Yitzchak Avinu, as an eesh gvura, might have had a “challenge” with those who want to hit and run, but for Yaacov such a confontation was a nemesis since it went against every fiber of his being an eesh emes.

    Typical BT’s, as I see,are endowed with a unique NEED for getting beyond the mediocre and respectively find peace thru tapping into the “vibe” dimension, as Bob puts it, of Mitzvah observance. Yet they will inevitably be disappointed unless they come to the kind of understanding the Nesivos, Bilvavi and other Tsaddikim offer.

    If I’d have to put it into a sentence, in light of Pyllis’s issue, I’d call it a strife for finding the music within the purity of intention.

    Anyone else want to take a shot at it?

  14. Personally, I have trouble with Sefira because I’m a very musical person, and the month-long abstention until Lag B’Omer is torture!

  15. I think that the repetitive nature of sefiras haomer and the apparent ease with which the mitzvah is fulfilled may lead some to “take it for granted”. Clearly, the midrash felt the potential that this could happen whrn it warned against doing so.

  16. Too much exposure to TV, videos, and electronic games, etc., has left many today with a craving for a thrill a minute. This causes problems in schools, too, where students want the teacher to entertain, above all else. The pleasure of doing a mitzvah is often a lot more subtle, as it should be.

  17. In what acceptable sense, could have YY meant when he used the term nemesis? Perhaps challenge would have been better, but nemesis might have a more personal connotation? Was the angel who wrestled with Yaakov his nemesis or his challenger?

    I like the rebbetzin’s comment, but is there any level below good in a given act? Or has grade inflation elevated the starting point of everything we do to good.

  18. I agree. Too low, too normal, is not too good.

    But it’s also not good to consider the performance of what is certainly the simplest mitzvah of the Torah a “nemesis.”

    As the rebbetzin says, “there’s good, better and best.”

  19. Is “is it necessary to fell special vibe” the right question.

    Judaism is about developing an awareness and deep relationship with G-d, the Creator of the universe. If we did have that awareness on a constant basis we would in fact be feeling special vibes all the time. The Zohar says that the 613 mitzvahs are the avenues to create that deep relationship.

    Read Bilvavi at and you’ll see that our settling as “normal” for the low level connection sells ourselves and Judaism short.

    Of course that doesn’t imply that if we’re not reach that level we should stop what we’re doing. Just that we really need to consistently set the bar higher in our personal connection to G-d.

    A G-d measure of this is kavanna during Davening, brochas and doing mitzvos. If we can’t stay focused during those G-d centered activities then we should grade ourselves as NI (needs improvement). And it’s not something to be ashamed of or pretend doesn’t exist. Perhaps we should try to improve together instead of accepting mediocre Judaism as the norm.

  20. I’m with Bob. It’s certainly great if people can infuse every mitzvah with a great deal of connection and meaning, but — like in shidduchim — people who feel they can’t commit unless they see “fireworks” are setting themselves up for trouble.

    This even goes to the concept of being a “normal” frum Jew, I think.

  21. Is it really necessary to feel special vibes doing every mitzvah? Sometimes it’s enough to know its meaning and purpose, and how doing it is part of HaShem’s plan for our personal/national fulfilment.

Comments are closed.