A Historical Controversy
An historic controversy arose between the Rabbis and sectarians as to the meaning of the command of counting the Omer.
"And you shall count unto you from the morrow after the Shabbat."
The Rabbis understood Shabbat to mean Pesach (i.e., "the day of rest"). The sectarians took it to mean, literally, the seventh day, and so they always began their counting on a Sunday. Although the Rabbis proved their case, why did the Torah use a word so open to misinterpretation?
In answering this question, the Rebbe's teaching branches out into a detailed study of the three stages from the Exodus from Egypt to the Giving of the Torah on Sinai, both as they occurred historically and as they recur daily in the life of the individual.
The Day After
In Emor, the commandment of counting the Omer is stated: "And you shall count unto you from the morrow after the day of rest ('Shabbat'), from the day that you brought the sheaf ('Omer') of the waving; there shall be seven complete weeks."
The Talmud tells us that the sect of the Boethusians interpreted the word Shabbat to mean the seventh day, rather than the "day of rest" of Pesach. As a consequence they held that the counting of the Omer always begins on a Sunday.
There was considerable debate, during which the Rabbis brought many scriptural proofs to establish that the Boethusian interpretation was false. But a persistent question remains: Why did the Torah leave room for this error, instead of stating explicitly, "on the day after the Pesach?"
In the Sidra of Shemot, G-d tells Moses, "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve G-d upon this mountain." In other words, the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt lay in the Giving of the Torah.
Between these two events, the Exodus and the Revelation on Sinai came the seven weeks of the Omer. These seven weeks were the necessary transition between the start and the completion of redemption.
Three months were involved in this process:
Nissan, in which the Exodus took place; Iyar, which is wholly taken up with the counting of the Omer; and Sivan, in which the Torah was given.
Only these three are explicitly mentioned in the context of the redemption.
Of Nissan it is written: "the month of Spring, ... in it you came out of Egypt." Of Iyar we find, "the second month ... after they had come out of the land of Egypt." And of Sivan, "In the third month after the Children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt." All three are mentioned because each was an integral part of the redemption.
Three Kinds of Food
Of these three, Pesach is linked to the eating of Matzah. The Omer was a measure of barley. And Shavuot has a special offering of two loaves, of fine flour baked with leaven.
This presents a number of difficulties.
Only two meal offerings did not consist of wheat: The Omer, and the offering of a wife suspected of infidelity. Both of these were of barley.
In the latter case the Talmud gives a reason: Her offering was to be of animal food as a humiliation for her immorality. But why was the Omer of animal food?
On Pesach we are forbidden to eat leaven, because leaven symbolizes man's inclination to pride and self-esteem. As leaven raises the dough, so pride inflates a man to arrogance. But why, in that case, are we allowed to eat leaven the rest of the year, and indeed obliged (in the Temple) to do so on Shavuot.
"Draw Me; We Will Run After You"
In the Song of Songs, there is a verse, "Draw me, we will run after you; the king has brought me into his chambers."
Each of these three phrases refers to one of the three stages of the departure from Egypt.
"Draw me" is the Exodus. "We will run after you" is the counting of the Omer. "The king has brought me into his chambers" is the Giving of the Torah.
"Draw me" is passive - it refers to the Israelites being taken out by G-d. Also it is singular. Whereas "We will run after you" is both active and plural.
By the end of their enslavement, the Israelites were assimilated into the heathen ways of their captors. They were not deserving of redemption. They had to be seized and drawn out of their captivity by the initiative of G-d. Since they were not inwardly prepared for it, this unexpected revelation did not alter them inwardly. They were taken hold of by G-d rather than by the promptings of their heart. And although their "G-dly soul" responded, their "animal soul" was unchanged. One part of their being received the revelation, but the other, the capacity for evil, remained.
Indeed, this is why, as the Alter Rebbe explains, the Israelites fled from Egypt. What they were running from was the evil within themselves.
So we can understand the phrase "Draw me." Firstly, when we take possession of an object by seizing hold of it, nothing is changed in the subject itself; it merely changes hands: In this case, from Israel's being in the hand of Pharaoh to their being in the hand of G-d. Israel in itself was unchanged.
Secondly, it was passive. The drawing out of Egypt was achieved by the hand of Heaven, not by any spontaneous act on the part of the Israelites. Thirdly, it was singular. The revelation of this sudden intervention of G-d affected only one side of their being. Their spirit responded; their physical passions did not.
Intellect and Passion
For all this, the purpose of a revelation is that the spirit should change the physical nature of man as well. If man were meant to be pure spirit, he would not have needed a body. The point of a religious life within the world is to bring every side of human nature into G-d's work: " 'And you shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart' - this means, with both your inclinations."
This interplay not only elevates the physical side of man, but also his spiritual life, by adding to it the drive and energy of physical passion.
Man as an intellectual being is dispassionate: His emotions and desires are mitigated by the rational control he exercises over them. But animal energy, be it literally in an animal or in the instinctual drives of man, is unchecked, powerful. As our sages say "There is much increase by the strength of an ox."
When the animal in man is no longer at war with his spirit, but is sublimated to it, all its passionate intensity is transferred to the life of holiness.
This is why the Omer was of barley, animal food. Because this was the labor of that period, to transform the "animal soul" of the Israelites, which had remained unaffected by the initial revelation in Egypt.
How is this done? By meditation. Meditation on the nature of G-d awakens love and fear. At first, when one knows that rebellion, pride, animal obstinacy, is still a power within oneself, one must "flee" from it.
This is the time of suppression. But once one has left the "Egypt" of temptation, there comes a time of meditation and sublimation, when the two sides of man no longer battle for possession, and when the spirit rules, and physical nature transfers its energy.
Thus Solomon wrote, "We will run after you." We will run, because our service is quickened by this new source of energy. We will run, because it is we, not G-d, who take the religious initiative. And "We," in the plural, because both sides of our nature are caught up in this effort of reaching out towards G-d, and each gives impetus to the other.
The Final Stage
There is still a further stage. At the Exodus, there was the Divine call. During the Omer, there was man's response. But at the Giving of the Torah, there was the final abnegation of man in the face of G-d.
While, for forty-nine days, he was transforming himself, he was still a self, still using his powers and relying on himself. But at Sinai, in the face of G-d, "with every single word that went forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, the souls of Israel departed." They were empty: The only reality was G-d.
Thus it is that on Pesach we may not eat leaven. At the outset, when pride and fulfillness preserve their power, they must be suppressed, set aside. They cannot be combated rationally, for they can subvert the mind: "They are wise to do evil."
At the stage of the Omer, we use our understanding to redirect our emotions. We use the leaven in ourselves to change ourselves. And when, at the point of Shavuot, we reach the final openness of all our being to G-d, then we are obliged to use the leaven, making every part of our nature into a channel for the light of G-d.
The Rabbis said, "In every generation, and every day, a man is obliged to see himself as if he had gone out of Egypt that very day." So each of the three stages of the exodus are components of the task of every day.
In the beginning of our prayers we say, "I give acknowledgment before you . . ." (the Modeh Ani prayer). This is the acknowledgment, the surrender to G-d, that precedes understanding. It is the Nissan of the day, the individual exodus.
There then follow the Psalms of Praise (Pesukei Dezimrah) and the Shema and its benedictions. These are the prayers of meditation, and understanding. "Hear, O Israel," the first phrase of the Shema, means "understand."
And through this meditation, the emotions are awakened, and the love of G-d is aroused with "all your heart and all your soul and all your might." This is the daily equivalent of the month of Iyar and the counting of the Omer.
But, so far, this represents only the battle against half, the "animal" half, of one's nature (bittul ha-yesh). There still awaits the final extinction of self-consciousness (bittul bi-metziut) which comes during the Amidah prayer, when "like a slave before his master" we have no self with which to speak. We are empty of words. We say, "O L-rd, open my lips." And this is the Sivan of the day, the moment when we confront - like the Israelites at Sinai - the all- possessing presence of G-d.
After The Shabbat
Now, finally, we realize why the Torah, in the verse quoted at the outset, says, "On the morrow after the Shabbat" instead of "... after the Pesach."
To achieve the transformation of the "animal soul" demands the deepest reserves of spiritual energy. To have brought the Israelites out of their entrenched impurity needed more than an "angel" - an emissary - it needed G-d himself in His Glory and Essence. If this was true of the escape from evil, it is more so for the transformation of evil into good. It would need a spiritual source able to enter into the heart of evil without being affected.
Shabbat is a source of intense spirituality. It is the apex of the week. But it still belongs to the week, and thus to time and the finite.
"The morrow after the Shabbat" refers to the step beyond Shabbat, beyond time itself: A revelation higher than the world.
To count the forty-nine days of Omer, that is, to transform into holiness every emotion that we feed, we must rest our efforts on the "morrow after the Shabbat" - the light of G-d from beyond the world.
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. I, pp. 265-270)