The mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer (counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot) is a bit deceiving…
On the one hand, it is so simplistic, so elementary; All we have to do is count the days from 1 to 49. There’s literally nothing else to do to fulfill the mitzvah.
On the other hand, Sefirat Haomer contains layers and layers of deeper meaning. It seems to have become quite trendy in the modern era to write about the sefiros (Godly attributes) that correspond to each day of the Omer (those words in the fine print in most siddurim), and connect them to messages that inspire self-refinement. Many of these works also include actionable items to implement in order to improve different facets of one’s character.
In fact, the mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer, especially its nature of being a consecutive, daily count in an ascending order, has been used as a model for self-growth and resilience by many contemporary giants in Jewish education. For instance, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ideas on this topic are recorded in Likkutei Sichos and Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz has a chapter in his book Living Inspired devoted to it. Rabbi Yaakov Haber has a whole book on Sefirat Haomer titled Sefiros, just to name a few.
So, what is it about Sefirat Haomer that makes it so useful as a formula for self-growth? Where did this notion originate?
During my research for the Handbook of Torah and Mental Health, I discovered a fascinating source from the Zohar Chadash. It states:
When we count the forty-nine days of the Omer from the second night of the festival, it reminds us that each day marks a step away from the defilement of Egypt and a step toward spiritual purity. At the end of this period, the Israelites were worthy of receiving the Torah.
Here the Zohar Chadash lays out the journey from Pesach to Shavuot as a 49-step spiritual detox program.
Since the Jewish people were not worthy of receiving the Torah when they first left Egypt, they had to ascend spiritually for 49 days until they cleansed themselves of all their impurities.
Anyone with experience in the profession of mental health, especially in the area of recovery from addiction, can relate to the sefirat haomer model. It is a count. A streak. A resolution. We set our goals, map out our journey, and monitor our progress each step along the way. We stand tall each night and announce proudly “this is the 13th day”, “the 14th day”, “the 15th day”!
We don’t want to miss a single day.
We count in an ascending order, instead of a descending order (referring to a famous question of why aren’t we counting down towards the holiday of Shavuot). We are leaving our past, filled with destructive habits and unhealthy patterns. We are building towards something better. We are climbing up a mountain of self-actualization.
This idea is more than a “ra ra ra” pep rally pump-up cheer. It is rooted in science and research. An article published in the journal Psychological Bulletin in 2016 conducted a meta-analysis on how monitoring your progress influences your ability to achieve your goals. It turns out that it matters a whole lot.
People who record their progress and monitor their gains and losses are much more likely to be successful than those who don’t.
What’s more, physically recording your progress (e.g. in a journal, app, or facebook post...I guess) and announcing it publicly, further improves your chances of achieving the results you are striving for.
This is true with regards to psychotherapy as well. A 2009 study found that when psychotherapy includes a formal monitoring of symptoms, patients are more likely to get better than when progress is not monitored. The research shows that the best formula for success is to first identify your goals, set a plan for how to achieve them, and then monitor your progress along the way. In other words, to model it after the mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer.
In these trying times, it is very easy to lose track and to feel lost in life. Now more than ever, the Omer period can provide us with the mental fortitude and resources to live a life worth living and grow spiritually.
Wishing everyone a chodesh tov!
Rabbi Saul Haimoff, PsyD
This essay is based off an entry from the Handbook of Torah and Mental Health, a book co-authored by David Rosmarin and Saul Haimoff, and published by Mosaica Press.