Naso: A transport of joy

To the sons of Kehath he did not give any [carts and oxen] since theirs was the service of the [most] sacred objects; their porterage was by shoulder. (B’midbar 7:9)

Sacred vessels
entrusted to our care
are borne on our shoulders
like children
held lovingly aloft.

The burden lightens
as hearts brim over,
a song bursts forth
and fills the air:
a glorious transport of joy.

The Torah describes the Levites’ physical labour: the Merarites were responsible for the bulky planks of the Tabernacle; the Gershonites for the Tabernacle curtains; and the Kehathites carried the holy vessels. (They were allocated carts and oxen to help transport their loads, except for the Kehathites who bore their load on their shoulders.) Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk learns from this that one does not acquire the least spark of holiness without effort.

The Sefat Emet, however, links that effort with the joy he believes should arise concomitantly. He brings a Midrash based on the verse “raise up a song and offer a drum, a sweet harp and a lyre,” (Tehillim 81:3) which connects the raising up of the holy vessels with raising one’s voice in song. He says that the fact that the Levites carried the Ark on their shoulders gave them the power to lift their voices in song. “This,” says the Sefat Emet, “is true of every person who serves God. True service fills a person with light and joy.” In his book, The Language of Truth* Rabbi Arthur Green adds that “religious life is not meant to be a weighty burden… the service of God should so fill us with joy so that we cannot keep from breaking into song.”

*The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, translated and interpreted by Rabbi Arthur Green.

Yom Yerushalayim: O Jerusalem

If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not count Jerusalem the greatest of all my joys. (Tehillim 137:5-6).

How could I forget you,
O Jerusalem –
your singular skyline
of shimmering domes
and cuspate pines,
etched in my mind’s eye?
How could I forget you –
where the azure sky arcs
above the sunlit stones,
and the contrast of shadow
and light is sharpest?
How could I forget you –
where the tension
between ancient and modern
cuts so deep
it jabs at the heart?
How could I forget you –
where the cadence
of every spoken tongue is heard,
where if I listen,
even the stones tell a story?
How could I forget you,
O Jerusalem –
the breath-taking ascent
into your encircling arms,
and the certainty
that I’ve come home?

B’midbar: In the wilderness

“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai…(B’midbar 1:1)
The azure sky encompasses
the parched and barren land:
an untouched, silent vacuum
devoid of mortal ploys.

No stamp of human grandeur
imprints the endless sand;
no thoroughfares are chiseled
through the undulating dunes.

Standing in the wilderness
we wait with open hearts:
we may yet tend the desert
and find our way to Eden.

Parashat B’midbar, which begins with God speaking to the people (through Moses) in the wilderness of Sinai, is always read on a Shabbat close to (and before) Shavuot when we celebrate receiving the Torah. The Sages point out that this reminds us that the Torah was given in a wilderness. The Talmud (Nedarim 55a) says, “One should be as open as a wilderness to receive the Torah.” The Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS adds, “It is intimidating to open oneself to the demands of God, to a new and morally demanding way of life. The Torah portrays the people Israel periodically wishing they were back in the predictable, morally undemanding servitude of Egypt. Yet Israel’s willingness to accept the Torah, to be “as open as a wilderness” to let the Torah’s morality fill the moral vacuum in the lives of former slaves, was the essential first step in God’s remaking the world. For the first time, God’s world will contain a moral people, guided by the Torah to live a God-oriented life.
The wilderness, untouched by human settlement, offered a contrast to Egypt, which was dominated by monuments fashioned by human hands…We may even see a parallel between the revelation at Sinai (when God imposed moral order in the midst of a wilderness) and the creation of the world (when God imposed natural order on chaos).”
Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin* comments on the hint contained in the proximity of Parashat B’midbar to Shavuot: “It comes to tell you: Whoever keeps the Torah can turn the face of the wilderness from desolation to a veritable garden of Eden, as it is written, “…and He will make her [Zion’s] wilderness like Eden and her desert like the garden of the Lord…” [Isaiah 51:3]”
Rabbi D. Shoham** is quoted in Itturei Torah (compiled by Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg) as follows, “And there is a further hint in that Parashat B’midbar is always read before Shavuot, the Season of the Giving of our Torah. To teach you that if someone wants to merit receiving the Torah, he must make himself like a desert, he should have a great measure of humility and feel that he has nothing and before whom to be proud, and he should know that he is bare and lacking, like the wilderness.”

*R’ Shlomo Yosef Zevin (1888 – 1978) was one of the most prominent Orthodox Zionist rabbis of the 20th century. Together with Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, he founded the Encyclopedia Talmudit, a Hebrew halachic encyclopedia, of which he was chief editor until his death.
R’ Shlomo Yosef Zevin was born in 1888 in Kazimirov (near Minsk), where his father, R’ Aharon Mordechai, served as rabbi. The younger Zevin’s education was a combination of both Lithuanian and Hasidic influences.
At a young age Rabbi Zevin was appointed rabbi of Kazimirov, and served as editor of the journal “Shaarei Torah.” He later served as rabbi of Klimon and Novozybkov. He took an active role in the underground struggle to preserve Jewish observance in Soviet Russia after the Communist Revolution. Beginning in 1921, he edited a Torah journal “Yagdil Torah,” together with Rabbi Yehezkel Abramsky of Slutsk; for which he was imprisoned by the Communist authorities. He founded Orthodox Jewish journals which addressed contemporary problems.
He began at a young age to serve Russian Jewry in various communal capacities. During the brief period of Ukrainian independence after World War I, Rabbi Zevin served as a member of the Ukrainian parliament. He also served as a member and officer of the parent body of Jewish communities in Ukraine.
In 1935, Rabbi Zevin settled in Israel and began teaching at the Mizrachi-affiliated Bet Midrash L’morim. He also served as a member of the Council of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate.
He held religious Zionist views and would eat a festive meal on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
Rabbi Zevin frequently corresponded with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, whom he had met for the first time in Russia in the mid-1920s. Part of this correspondence is printed in the Igrot Kodesh series. He was also among the influential scholars to encourage Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson to accept the leadership over the Chabad movement after the passing of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, in 1950. He used concepts in Chabad philosophy to clarify halachic principles.
In addition to the Talmudic Encyclopedia, R’ Zevin authored nine other works, among them L’Ohr HaHalachah – essays on both practical and abstract halachic topics, including a halachic analysis of the legal and moral questions presented in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; Ishim Ve’shitot – biographies of selected 19th and 20th century sages with analyses of their individual methods of study; and Sippurei Chassidim – Chassidic tales arranged by parasha and festival.

**Rabbi D. Shoham. Although he is cited in Itturei Torah, I can find no biographical details about him.

Bechukotai: Whose prayer?

If you walk in My statutes and observe My commandments faithfully, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. (Vayikra 26:4)

The pilgrim, dusty, footsore,
trudges slowly home.
Under the blinding sun he treks,
desert wind howling at his back.
The heavens darken swiftly:
raindrops splash his face.
In his mind, a prayer arises:
“Stay the rain until I’m safe!”
His thoughts return to the Temple:
God’s providence felt so clear.
His heart, still filled with wonder, knows
that the land cries out for rain.
The downpour is God’s blessing –
rainfall in its season.
He walks serenely on,
a steady smile upon his lips.

On Yom Kippur, we are told, the High Priest would recite a short prayer for rain. The Talmud expands upon this short prayer, which ends with a seemingly strange request: “May the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence.”

The plain meaning of the phrase “rains in their season” is simply that the rain will fall in the right season in Israel. Rain that comes too early or too late can play havoc with the crops. Rashi, however, based on the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 35:10) interprets it as rain falling at times when people do not usually go out on journeys, for example on Friday nights.
In his book Peninim Yekarim, Rabbi Shimon Betsalel Neuman,* quoting the Yalkut HaGershuni, expands on this theme based on a story from the Gemara (Ta’anit 24:2) about R’ Chanina ben Dosa who was out walking when the rain began to fall. He said, “Master of the World! The whole world is at ease and Chanina is in trouble.” The rain stopped. When he arrived home, he said, “Master of the World! The whole world is in trouble and Chanina is at ease.” The rain came down. R’ Yosef asked, “How does the High Priest’s prayer [that the wayfarer’s prayer be disregarded] work with regard to R’ Chanina ben Dosa?” Rabbi Neuman cites the phrase, “If you walk in My statutes…” He asks if all Israel will be righteous and through each one the saying will be realised: “The righteous person decrees and God fulfils,”(Ta’anit 23:1) – then when will the rain fall? For there will never be a time when someone is not on the way and will pray for the rain to cease. So God will give the rain on Friday nights when all of Israel is at home.

In an article entitled The Prayer of the High Priest, Rabbi Uzi Kalchaim asks, “When have we ever seen a negative request before? A request which calls for blocking other people’s prayers?” He cites Rabbi Shimon Shalom Kalish** of Amshinov (1882–1954) who wonders who these wayfarers are and whether they are righteous? R’ Shimon Shalom Kalish asks whether it could be that the righteous pray that rain not fall on the Land of Israel at a time when the earth needs it so much? Or whether it could be that the prayer of the wicked be received on high and that rain be prevented from falling because of them? And he gives the answer, “The Talmud is speaking about a simple Jew who has labored all day to earn a living, and, on his way home the rain falls heavily. His wagon becomes mired in the middle of the path. Soaked through, he shouts, “Oy! How will I get home?” His shout is heartfelt and it demands a response!”
Rabbi Kalchaim says “Many prayers come before the heavenly hosts. Some of them are saturated in tears, and sometimes the prayers contradict one another. Who will determine which prayer enters first, and which will have to wait?”
So the High Priest requests that “the prayers of wayfarers not enter Your presence.” Israel needs rain and the people cry out to God, so the priest prays that the welfare of the entire people will take precedence over that of a single person.

*Rabbi Shimon Betsalel Neuman authored the Peninim Yekarim, a popular commentary on the Torah, Prophets and Ketuvim, and aggadot in the Talmud. (I cannot find any certain biographical details but it seems he was born in 1860 and died (was killed?) in 1942. Peninim Yekarim was printed during World War II when Hungary was already ruled by a pro-German government in the shadow of the Holocaust. It is comprised of approximately five hundred articles selected from other works, both old and new from previous rabbinic sources.

**Rabbi Shimon Shalom Kalish (1882–1954) was the Rebbe of Amshinov–Otvotsk. The son of Rabbi Menachem Kalish he succeeded his father on his death in 1918. He was a major driving force behind the exodus of thousands of young men in Mir, Kletsk, Radin, Novhardok and other yeshivot, via Russia and Japan to Shanghai at the outbreak of World War II. By the time Shanghai came under Japanese control, it held 26,000 Jews (Shanghai Ghetto).
As World War II intensified, the Nazis stepped up pressure on Japan to hand over the Shanghai Jews. The Japanese military governor of the city sent for the Jewish community leaders. The delegation included R’ Shimon Shalom Kalish. It is said that the Japanese governor was curious and asked why the Germans hated the Jews so much. Without hesitation and knowing the fate of his community hung on his answer, Rabbi Kalish told the translator (in Yiddish): “Zugim weil mir senen orientalim — Tell him the Germans hate us because we are Oriental.” The governor, apparently, whose face had been stern throughout the confrontation, smiled slightly. In spite of the military alliance, he did not accede to the German demand and the Shanghai Jews were never handed over.
After the war, Rabbi Kalish moved to the United States but when he died in 1954, his son Rabbi Yerachmiel Yehuda Myer Kalish (1901-1976) brought his body to Israel for burial and he remained in Israel.

Behar: The Seventh Year

Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in
the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, a Sabbath
of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (Vayikra 25:3,4).

When you enter the land, dig over the earth;
deep in the furrows scatter the seeds.

Rejoice at the sight of seedlings sprouting;
tender leaves spiraling up to the light.

Gather the harvest from fruit-laden vines,
sickle the sheaves of sun-golden wheat.

But each seventh year, leave the land fallow,
a Sabbath of rest – neither plant then, nor reap.

Instead, feast your eyes on the land’s wild beauty –
see what the earth, unhampered, brings forth.

Open the gates: let the destitute enter;
let them wander the fields and blamelessly glean.

Let the acres, untrammeled, recover their wisdom:
let the land be replenished at Source.

Aside from the intricacies of the laws of Shemita (leaving the land to lie fallow every seventh year) and the economic problems involved for modern farmers in an increasingly competitive world, there is another over-arching perspective to consider. In a contemporary article entitled Let the Land Rest: Lessons from Shemita, the Sabbatical Year, Rabbi Noam Yehuda Sendor addresses this: (The next Shemita year will begin on Rosh Hashanah 5775, September 2014).
He says that in the Garden of Eden, there was a balance in which people were to “work and guard” the Earth, and the Earth would sustain its inhabitants. This harmony has been lost. Rabbi Sendor believes that the commandments of Shemita can help to heal the brokenness in humanity’s relationship to the Earth.
The farmer has invested six years of unceasing and strenuous labour and is now to stop work for a year. The Torah tells us, The land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” (Vayikra 25:23). Here is a reminder that we hold the land in trust. We are further told that we are to render all seventh-year produce “hefker — ownerless” and free. For that year, the farmer is commanded to surrender his ownership of the land and let the hungry (humans and animals) enter and eat freely of whatever grows there.
Furthermore, in the Shemita year, outstanding debt obligations are to be cancelled.
The people are to absolve each other of debts which have accrued. Rabbi Sendor says that some of these commandments of Shemita “help reorient us to ensuring that every part of society is looked after, especially the destitute and underprivileged. We also learn of the great sensitivity to all living beings that is required of us, as we must care for the animals of the field and make our produce available to them. For an entire year we are commanded not to focus on our financial growth and the expansion of our assets, but rather we are to focus all of our resources on others.” He adds that the laws of Shemita shift our perspective from seeing the earth as a resource to be exploited, to an awareness of the beauty and complexity inherent in the natural world which God has created.
Rabbi Sendor believes that the way the earth is treated today reflects that humanity has yet to learn the lessons of Shemita. He mentions the deforestation of vast portions of the Earth’s forests resulting in incalculable environmental damage, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and driving thousands of species of life to extinction each year. He describes the “slash and burn” method of clearing land for agriculture, employed globally by both small and large-scale cattle farmers, involving cutting the vegetation of a plot of land and allowing it to dry, at which point it is burned. The cleared forest lands are then cultivated for a few seasons until yields decline on the fragile, nutrient-poor soil, used for cattle pasture until it is further degraded, and then abandoned. (According to recent research, leaving the land to lie fallow for a year improves the mineral content of the soil.)
Rabbi Sendor concludes “Shemita demonstrates that the earth needs to rest as an ecological necessity, just as people need to rest as a spiritual necessity. Shemita represents an ideal, an expanded perspective which seeks out meaning in all experiences and moves us to treat the world around us, and its fruits, with the sanctity they deserve. The world is sorely in need of wisdom that helps us learn to relate differently to the land.”
He quotes Rabbi Menachem Froman, who said, “I feel that there is something very, very deep in the love between man and land… Man is made from dust and to dust he will return. The connection between man and his land is the connection to his life source. That connection can derive from love or it can derive from possessiveness: meaning that you want to be the owner of the land, to control it.”

Yom HaAtzma’ut: The Hand of God

High on buildings of
rugged Jerusalem stone,
flags flutter, brightly etched
against the cobalt sky.
Our eyes are drawn aloft
as when the hand of God reached out
and darkness turned to light.

Night-time dreams are banished
by the rhythmic beat of drums
and the sound of gladdened voices
is borne upon the wind.
Our mouths are filled with song
as when the hand of God reached out
and fear turned into hope.

In Itturei Torah – a selection of wisdom and ethical teachings, collected and annotated by Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg*, he notes that Yom HaAtzma’ut always falls on the same day as the seventh day of Pesach that year, and points out that this is hinted at because the gematria for Yom Chag HaAtzma’ut (the day of the Festival of Independence) equals that of be’yom bo chal hashevi’i shel Pesach (the day on which the seventh day of Pesach falls)!
There are, however, some notable similarities between the seventh day of Pesach and Yom HaAtzma’ut. Tradition holds that the parting of the Red Sea took place on the seventh day of Pesach. The Children of Israel were hemmed in by the hostile army behind them, and the sea ahead of them. God miraculously brought a strong wind which split the sea and the people passed through unscathed. In 1948, the tiny nascent Jewish state was surrounded by hostile armies threatening to push all the Jews into the sea, and God wrought a miraculous delivery. The creation of the modern state of Israel under independent sovereignty, free from an alien regime, parallels the emergence of the Children of Israel from the sea as a newborn nation, on its way to creating an ethical society. Both times, the people were called upon to play their part in their own deliverance.

In the same book, regarding Yom Ha’Atzmaut, there is a short section entitled, “Concerning Flying the Flag” in which the author writes: “It is customary to fly the country’s flag on the top of the houses on the eve of Independence Day before sunset.” He cites the Ramban who comments on Shemot 14:5, “And it was told to the king of Egypt that the people had fled…” The Ramban is explaining what the Pharaoh was told that caused him to ready his chariots and horsemen and set off in pursuit. He says that it was reported to the Pharaoh that “The Children of Israel went out with a high hand.”(Shemot 14:8). This, according to the Ramban, means that the Children of Israel made themselves flags and banners to wave, and they went out joyously, singing with drums and instruments, as befits people who have been redeemed from slavery to freedom, as opposed to slaves who will soon return to their previous enslavement.

In a further section in Itturei Torah on Yom HaAtzma’ut, Greenberg brings some commentaries on Psalm 126:1-3, from a number of rabbinic sources, all of whom pre-dated the establishment of the State of Israel, yet are extraordinarily prescient.
When the Lord brought back the exiles of Zion, we were like people who dream. Then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with song. Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord did do great things for us and we rejoiced…
Rabbi Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub** of Modzitz comments on the first phrase, “”When God restores the exiles of Zion,” – it will become patently clear to us that up until now in the diaspora, wherever we have lived, even though we have been rooted, as it were, in a life of Torah and Judaism, with all the wealth and honour in the diaspora – “we were like dreamers” – all our life there was “as a dream that floats away” – without foundation, without the grounding of reality beneath it.”
Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk*** of Kutna quotes Rabbi Menahem Azariah da Fano**** on the difference between laughter and rejoicing in the verse above, “Here is the difference between laughter and rejoicing as explained by the Rema MiPano in his book Asarah Ma’amarot (Ten Articles)…laughter is about the budding of salvation – its beginning and the expectation and hope that it will come to fruition. Rejoicing is about the completion of the salvation. So when God restores the exile of Zion, we will only be laughing. We will be happy in our salvation as at the beginning of redemption, but we will hope and yearn for its completion when the prophets’ missions will be completely fulfilled.”

*Aharon-Ya’akov Greenberg (1900 – 1963) was an Israeli politician.
Born in Sokolow Podlaski in an area of the Russian Empire which is today Poland, he made aliyah to Mandatory Palestine in 1934 and in 1949 he was elected to the first Knesset and was Deputy Speaker in the fifth Knesset at the time of his death.
He is probably best remembered in Orthodox Jewish circles for his authorship of “Itturei Torah” a commentary upon the weekly Torah portion, drawing from wide-ranging sources from Hassidut to Mussar, which he published weekly in the newspaper HaTzofeh under the pseudonym “Y. Halevi”. After his death, these columns were collected and published in book form in seven volumes.

**Rabbi Shaul Yedidya Elazar Taub (1886–1947) was the great-grandson of the founder of the dynasty of Modzitz, Poland. The dynasty started with Rebbe Yechezkel Taub of Kuzmir (1755–1856), who was a disciple of the Seer of Lublin and the Kozhnitser Magid. His son, R’ Shmuel (? -1888) excelled in Torah scholarship and was also known as “menagen mafli pla’ot – a wondrous musical talent” creating the hasidic songs which subsequently characterised the Modzitz dynasty. Rabbi Shaul Yedidya, the grandson of R’ Shmuel, was forced to flee Poland in 1938 due to Nazi persecution. He wandered through Vilna, Lithuania and Russia, and from there to Japan. Finally he reached the US and settled in New York in 1940. He was able to rebuild Modzitz Chassidut. He too was a gifted songwriter and wrote over 1,000 hasidic melodies. He had an intense love for the Land of Israel, and foresaw the establishment of the State of Israel. He did not live to see the fulfilment of his vision as he died on November 29, 1947, the day the UN voted to create the State of Israel. He was the last person to buried on the Mount of Olives until it was liberated in 1967.

***Rabbi Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk of Kutna (1821-1893) was born in Plotsk and from an early age his giftedness was apparent. His father was his first teacher but he died when his son was 11. Married at 14, Rav Yisrael Yehoshua spent the next few years studying while supported by his father-in-law. At 19 he became the Rav of Shrensk where he founded a yeshiva and remained for seven years. At age 29 he became Rav of Vorka, and his fame as a halachic decisor grew. Ten years later he moved to Kutna where he remained until his death. He had a close relationship with other great Polish Hasidic rabbis of the era, among them the Chiddushei HaRim and the Sefat Emet. He published several books. R’ Yisrael Yehoshua was known for his love for the land of Israel and he visited with his son-in-law in 1886, in an attempt to encourage settlement. He issued a call to buy etrogim from Israel rather than from Italy and Greece. In 1889 he was one of the signatories on the first heter mechira (permit of sale) developed for the Shmita year of 1888-1889, which enabled Jewish farmers to sell their land to non-Jews so that they could continue to work the land and avoid impoverishment of the Jewish settlement. His only son, Rav Moshe Pinchas Tronk, succeeded him as Rav in Kutna. The demise of the Kutna community came when the Nazis liquidated its remaining Jews on March 26, 1942.

****R’ Menahem Azariah da Fano (the Rema MiPano, 1548 – 1620) was an Italian rabbi, Talmudist and Kabbalist. The Rema MiPano’s authority as a Talmudist is evident in a collection of responsa containing 130 chapters on various subjects connected with religious law and ritual questions. He composed 24 kabbalistic treatises which originated partly in addresses delivered by the author on festivals, especially on Rosh Hashanah.

Emor: Fifty days

…You must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days. (Vayikra 23:16)
Fifty days – advancing,
arriving at the foothills,
standing before God.

Fifty days – struggling,
blown by hostile dusty winds
through dry and barren land.

Fifty days – supplicating,
for the outcome of the harvest
is hanging in the balance.

Fifty days – evolving
from first-reaped tender sheaf
to fragrant loaves of bread.

Fifty days – burnishing
attributes in permutations,
tending inner sparks.

Fifty days – counting
from that first sweet taste of freedom
to the joy of revelation.

Seven rounds of seven,
transcending who we were, and
becoming something more.

The Torah mandates the seven-week counting of the Omer, beginning on the second day of Pesach and leading up to Shavuot. At the start of this period, when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, we were enjoined to bring a grain offering – a sheaf of barley, called an “omer.” Fifty days later, at the end of the period, on the holiday of Shavuot, we would bring another grain offering – two loaves made of wheat.
In ancient times, the grain harvest lasted seven weeks and was a season of gladness (Jer. 5:24, Devarim 16:9-11, Isa. 9:2). The bringing of the grain offerings, and the counting of the fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot, were part of an agricultural festival; a way of thanking God, during the period of the spring harvest, for the food that He provided. The counting corresponded to a sense of anticipation for a plentiful harvest. The Torah seems to be adding an element of time – to count the days while watching the harvest mature.
Barley was the first crop to be harvested – the first crop to ripen in the spring. The fifty-day period between Pesach and Shavuot was the time of harvesting both barley and wheat, so was a highly symbolic time during which the bread supply of the nation would be determined.
If the hot dust storms, which are most frequent in spring and summer, occurred over a number of consecutive days, they could destroy the harvest. They were believed to blow at intervals for up to 50 days hence the name hamsin which in Arabic means fifty. When these suffocatingly hot, sand-laden winds were blowing, outdoor activity was severely impeded and the population forced to take shelter until the storm passed.

This counting of days and weeks is also understood to express anticipation and desire to receive the Torah. On Pesach, the children of Israel were freed from Egyptian slavery; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.
It says in Midrash Rabba on Parashat Emor that when the Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt, Moses told them that they were to receive a Divine gift – the Torah – in 49 days. In their great excitement at the prospect of a spiritual liberation, following the physical emancipation from Egypt, each person kept a count of the passing days.
We, too, in the days between Pesach and Shavuot, are meant to prepare ourselves for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Thus, the experience of these 50 days has evolved from one that was totally agricultural in nature to one that also focuses on the journey towards receiving the Divine Revelation.
The idea of counting each day represents this spiritual preparation.
In keeping with the themes of spiritual growth and character development during this period, the Rabbinic literature compares the process of growth to the two types of grain offering at the beginning and end of the counting period. In ancient times, barley was simpler food while wheat was a more luxurious food. At Pesach, the children of Israel were raised out of the Egyptian exile although they had sunken almost to the point of no return. The Exodus was an unearned gift from God, like the food of simple creatures that are not expected to develop their spiritual potential. For the next forty-nine days, however, the Israelites worked on themselves to be able to receive the Torah in their own merit. The receiving of the Torah required spiritual elevation and active cooperation. Thus the Shavuot offering reflects the people’s work in the production of the bread.
In Kabbalah, these 49 days of preparation are compared to walking through forty-nine gates, one for each day of the counting. The gate for each day is formed by pairing two of the seven lower sefirot, the Divine “emanations” by which God’s qualities are revealed: chesed – love, compassion; gevurah – strength, discipline; tiferet – beauty, balance; netzach –eternity, endurance; hod – splendor, humility; yesod – connection, grounding; malchut – nobility, aspiration.
According to Jewish tradition, the natural world is predicated on systems of seven. During the Omer period, we count seven times seven. We then reach fifty which represents the ability to attain a higher level.