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During the Second Temple, the Greek empire reigned (over Israel),1 and they (the Greeks) passed decrees against the Jews and (tried) to erase their religion, and did not allow them to carry out Torah (study) or the commandments. They put their hands on their property and their daughters. They entered the Temple, destroyed and made the pure unclean. The Jews were in great distress because of them and were much oppressed, until the G-d of their fathers had mercy on them, delivering them from their hands and saving them. Then overcame, the sons of the Hasmonean High Priest, (the Greeks) and killed them and saved the Jews from their hands. They appointed a king from the Priests, and the kingdom of Israel was restored for more than 200 years until the destruction of (the) second (Temple). When the Jews overcame their enemies and destroyed them, it was the 25th of Kislev2 when they entered the Sanctuary (inner room) and did not find pure (olive) oil in the Temple, except one jar sealed with seal of the High Priest, and it did not contain enough to light except for one day only. But they lit from it the lamps of the Menorah3 for eight days, until they could crush olives and produce a (new quantity) of pure oil. For these reasons, decreed the Sages of that generation that these eight days that begin on the 25th Kislev, will be days of joy and praise. One lights on them lamps at evening at the entrance to the houses, every evening of the eight nights to show off and demonstrate the miracle. These days are called ''Hanukah'' that is to say ''they rested'' (chanu) on the ''25'' ('th of the month) because on the 25th they rested from their enemies. and also because of those days they (re)-dedicated the house (Temple) which their foes had defiled. Also some say that it is a commandment to increase slightly the festive meals on Hanukah. Another reason is because the work of (building) the Sanctuary (in the desert) was completed in these days. One should tell one's children the story of the miracles that were done for our fore-fathers in those days, (see Josephus) However, these meals are not considered as part of the commandment unless one says at the meal songs of praise. One should increase charity in these Hanukah days, for this can help mend any defects in our souls. This charity, should be given particularly to poor Torah scholars. (KSA 139:1)
1) 352 BCE until 70 CE
2) 139 BCE
3) The Menorah was made of gold and had seven branches.
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.