One can look in the Torah and find the exact dates on which Rosh Hashana (Vayikra 23:24), Yom Kippur (23:27), Succos (23:34), Shmini Atzeres (23:36) and Pesach (23:5) are to be observed. For Shavuos however, no such Pasuk exists. Rather we are told that starting from the second day of Pesach we are to count 7 weeks and the following day bring the Karban Omer. The next day, after the counting is complete, is the Yom Tov of Shavuos (23:16,21). Most Mepharshim learn that this was deliberately set up to mirror the fact that Bnei Yisroel were told at the time of Yitzias Mitzrayim that fifty days after their departure, they would receive the Torah. Thus, the Yom Tov of Shavuos has come to commemorate Matan Torah, even though the Torah’s reference revolves around the bringing of the Karban Omer.
During Sefira we count the 49 days prescribed by the Torah until the time for bringing the Omer and the Yom Tov of Shavuos. The Minhag is to count the 49 days forward (counting the first day as day one, the second as two etc.) as opposed to backwards (forty nine days, forty eight days left etc.). This custom has generated significant discussion as to its origin. Some Rishonim explain that counting forward towards a goal “is the nature of people”. That when looking forward towards something they tend to count forward. Perhaps things were different in the time of the Rishonim, but that does not in fact tend to be “the nature of people” today. Ask any school child how many days until school is out and they can tell you how many days are left, not how many days they have been in school. Similarly, if someone is saving money for a purchase, they tend to keep track of how much more they need, not how much they have saved to date. What were the Rishonim referring to when they offered this explanation for the manner in which we count?
When one examines the plan for B’nei Yisroel after leaving Mitzraim leading up to Matan Torah, the Rishonim’s explanation becomes clear. First, it is not a coincidence that the 49 days neatly correspond to the depths of Tumah we are told that B’nei Ysroel had sunk to in Mitzrayim. 49 also corresponds to the heights of Kedusha one can reach in this existence. This was the purpose in their being 49 days before Matan Torah – to give B’nei Yisroel an opportunity to grow and reach the level they needed to be at for Kabalas Hatorah. It is precisely this growth process to which the Rishonim were referring.
It is true when one has an ultimate goal they tend to count backwards towards that goal. That is because the individual steps have little value in their own right. If one needs $200 to buy a new suit, the $142 he has saved thus far is not what’s important. It’s the remaining $58 that is important. So he counts – I need $58 more dollars to reach my goal and tomorrow he needs $53 etc. Our process of Sefiras Haomer is supposed to be markedly different. Our counting is supposed to represent steps of growth in preparation for Matan Torah, where each step is an accomplishment in its own right. We see this is in fact how people count when the steps themselves do have meaning. When one counts during a pregnancy they don’t say they have 2 months until their due date, they say that they are in their seventh month or 30 weeks pregnant, because each day represents the growth and development of their unborn child. When each step in the process has value we do in fact count forwards.
Hopefully, with this idea we can add substantial significance to our Sefiras Haomer. While we eagerly look forward towards Shavuos, we must understand that we need to grow during this time to be fit to accept Hashem’s Torah. Like a developing child, we too must be constantly progressing and reaching new milestones if we are truly understanding counting forwards. If we use each day as an opportunity to grow and fill each day with meaning, we will be able to reach the proper level for the Yom Tov of Shavuos.