By Rabbi Edward Feld
Biblically, Sefirat Ha-omer seems to have a purely agricultural association. The Omer offering of barley was dedicated at the Temple on the Second Day of Pesach and one then proceeded to count seven weeks until the time of the offering of the first fruits, bikurim – of the wheat harvest. It is a kind of waiting period, a time of anticipation, until farmers could see the fruit of their labor. You plant seeds, water the ground, watch as sprouts appear and nervously wait to learn what this year’s yield will be.
But, inevitably, the association of Pesach with the Exodus from Egypt and Shavuot with the revelation on Mt. Sinai meant that this period of waiting held a spiritual meaning as well. It could be seen as a time of preparation, of preparing the ground for receiving the Divine call.
The Talmud gives us no direction in how to do this preparation save the count itself. The very counting of the days inculcates a certain anticipation. Each day we become conscious we are being led to something. And so it became customary to study a chapter of Pirkei Avot each of these weeks. In fact, the sixth was added to the original five chapters of Pirkei Avot so that there would be enough material for study on the six shabbatot between Pesach and Shavuot. These fundamental teachings of rabbinic Judaism were seen as the basis for and an understanding of the meaning of Torah. Indeed, one of the possible translations of the phrase Pirkei Avot is fundamental teachings – avot meaning fundamental as in avot m’lakha – that from which everything else is derived.
In a different vein, the mystical Jewish tradition which gave substance to this sense of anticipation tying each week to their understanding of the spiritual levels needed to approach the Divine – the spiritual levels that were the very constitution of the Divine. In Siddur Lev Shalem we’ve arranged Sefirat Ha-omer in accord with this weekly system and we’ve tried to pose some modern-day questions of self-examination appropriate to the mystical theme of that week. Tying the two traditions together we’ve culled teachings from Pirkei Avot as ways to enter into the mystical themes of the weeks of Sefirat Ha-omer.
You might consider teaching these paragraphs of Pirkei Avot on Friday night during the weeks of Sefirat Ha-omer and using them as springboards to raise the questions we’ve associated with these weeks. Traditionally, the time between Kabbalat Shabbat and arvit was a time for teaching and you can include this material then, or you might highlight them before Aleinu as you turn to Sefirat Ha-omer.