By Daniel Bortz
It took 50 days from Passover and the exodus from Egypt — until the holiday of Shavuot for the Jewish nation to reach Mt. Sinai and hear the commandments directly from G-d. They used this time to spiritually prepare for this momentous occasion by working on refining themselves. Since the energy of these original cosmic events are awakened each year at this time, we too prepare for Shavuot by “counting the omer” — seven weeks of focusing on each one of the seven divine soul traits we possess: loving kindness, strength/discipline, harmony/compassion, endurance, humility, connection, and expression. This paradigm of seven is found throughout reality: seven days of the week, seven musical notes on the western scale, seven colors, seven shepherds and fruits of Israel, seven circles under the wedding canopy, and many more. An interesting question arises: The Torah clearly says to count 50 days, so why do we only count 49?
The answer to this touches on a beautiful idea that applies to all areas of life. We live in a finite, scientifically measured world. How then can we reach transcendence and connect with a greater reality that isn’t physically measurable? The only path is through this physical world, following the necessary steps of effort, but then realize that in putting finite parts together you’ve constructed something that goes beyond the sum of the parts.
Music is made up of specific notes, strings, keys. A series of sounds that on their own are meaningless. Yet once the musician plays them all together, it becomes music. It’s greater than the sum of the parts — it’s the totality of the effect that those series of notes have. Yet only through a series of specific detailed notes being played in the right flow can this transcendent outcome occur. This is true of great writing and poetry, in painting, in incredible stories and movies. Every detail is vitally important! But the whole point is that it takes you to a higher place beyond the details.
When a teacher educates a student, the goal shouldn’t only be to instill certain skills and knowledge. He or she should awaken the student to a deeper way of thinking. To see problem solving in a new light; to approach reading with a new lens. A marriage should be like that. It involves plenty of detailed giving to one another. But it goes deeper. It’s growing together and creating a relationship of love through giving that’s far greater than two people experiencing life together.
Your life is like this. As you learn and study new ideas of Torah, grow as a person, do another selflessness act, practice patience, perform kindness — all of this over time is constructing you into a human being that’s greater than the individual things you’ve done. You become like a song whose sum is far greater than its parts.
Jewish history is like this too. Endless successes and tragedies and growth as a nation. The prophets teach that there will come a time very soon of redemption when we will see why every detail of history was necessary. And the outcome of this history will be breathtaking and transcendent.
This explains why we count 49 days and not the last day — the 50th. The work we do on ourselves is vital to reach the miraculous Sinai experience. But this is the outcome of the work which isn’t countable. It isn’t a “step in the journey” or a final note of music. It’s the transcendent music that takes you to another place. May we always add notes to the symphony through the mitzvot we do and the way we grow, leading us to the resulting transcendent experience that awaits us.