file Counting of the Omer: A Journey From Tumah to Tahara

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8 years 5 months ago #54 by YIO Webteam

There is no Biblical injunction against being in a state of Tumah (“impurity”). A person's status in this regard is relevant only as it relates to the permissibility of entry into holy places (Mishkan /Temple/Mount Sinai).

The Mishkan, the Holy Temple and Mt. Sinai have been designated by the Torah as places where an individual can have a relationship with G-d. It is in these locations that one can bring a Korban, an offering of/from oneself to experience closeness with the Divine. It is in these locations that G-d communicates with us (from above the Cheruvim, and from atop the mountain). Indeed, the Ramban, and more recently, Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, note that the role of the Mishkan during the wandering in the desert was to serve as a constant and concrete reminder of the Mt. Sinai experience, as a kind of visual representation of the place that the special relationship with Hashem was forged. The encampment surrounding the Mishkan, the flames from the offering of Korbanot in the very center mirrored the encampment on and around Mt.Sinai where Korbanot were offered amidst the fiery scene. Tumah can best be understood in psychological terms. Our hypothesis is that Tumah is a state of cognitive loss; a "death" or "dispirited" state during which one is so deeply depressed, apathetic, and/or guilt-ridden (on some level) that he/she no longer has the capacity to enter into any relationship--not with G-d and not with other human beings.

If one is filled with negativity in a state of emotional self absorption (Tameh) it is pointless to enter the Temple, for no relationship can or will develop. This Torah truth is, of course, equally applicable to our human relationships, particularly the most important one of all, the spousal situation. When there is the aura of negativity in one of the partners, there can be no relationship. In our view, this is the deeper message of Tumah for us all in our religious and personal lives.

Contact with death precipitates a state of Tumah. A corpse is considered the "ultimate father of all Tumah," because contact with death triggers a primordial uneasiness, fear (of one's own mortality?) and negativism that can absorb all of the one’s emotional energy. (Even medical students report a sense of uneasiness after the first encounter with a cadaver.) Death of a family member can evoke negative emotions including sadness, resentment, anger, feelings of unfairness, and guilt. The person who encounters death is self-absorbed, sad, and depressed. These feelings interfere with one's ability to connect with others. The Torah's insight into the profound (oft-times unconscious) forces that dominate a human being's emotions and behavior is further evident in the reality that the negativity associated with death becomes diluted the further one is removed from the source. Thus, a person who touches a corpse (called a "Rishon L'tumah") experiences the most intense emotional negativity (i.e., Tumah). As that person comes into contact (e.g., shakes hands) with others, the emotion of the "death association" by the latter is a step removed and diluted. And so on down the line as each Tameh person comes into contact with another person or object, the transmission (emotional response to the original source of Tumah) weakens. (Please note that the halachos of Tumah are lengthy, complicated and well beyond the scope of this article. It would be interesting at some point to study the details of Tumah and see if they fit the hypothesis we are proposing. For the moment, however, our interest here is in providing a conceptual framework for understanding the psychological meaning and emotional dynamics of the thing that is Tumah.)

Counting of the Omer

Shavuot is the holiday for celebrating our relationship with G-d. Counting of the Omer occurs between Pesach and Shavuot. We count up to 49, not down from 49, despite the fact that the latter approach conveys a greater level of anticipation and excitement. ("We have only x number of days left...") If an individual failed to count one day, he cannot recite the blessing when he counts the remaining days! Why? Also, is the number 49 of days leading up to Shavuot coincidental or significant?

Preparing for a relationship requires a positive emotional/religious outlook. Counting of the 49 days of the Omer is a day by day building up process designed, in part, to neutralize the deep feelings of depression and despair in Egypt when the Jews plunged to the 49th level of Tumah—to the depths of despair. If perchance we forget to count one day (i.e., we fail to think and emote positivity), we have interrupted the integrity of the building process. Each day builds on the previous day's progress. By missing a link of a day we are no longer able to achieve the totality of the rebuilding process. This idea may explain the Halacha that if one misses counting of one day he can no longer count the remaining days with Bracha.

We hope and pray that thinking about its meaning as we count the Omer helps us emerge from whatever Tumah state we may have been in, thereby preparing us for re-experiencing the defining Jewish relationship at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot. And we hope and pray that this healthy emotional condition extends itself to all our personal, human relationships.

Rabbi H.L. Berenholz

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