As we complete the seven week count of the Omer and prepare to welcome the holiday of Shavuot, it's worth pondering why, alone among all Jewish holidays, Shavuot is anticipated in this unusual manner. Carefully and methodically, for a full seven weeks, we count the forty-nine days that link Pesach and Shavuot. Why?
The most common explanation is that the link between Pesach and Shavuot is intended to highlight the link between the Jewish people's liberation from Egyptian slavery on the one hand and its acceptance of the Torah on the other. We celebrate Pesach as Zeman Cheiruteinu (the Season of our Freedom), but the Jewish concept of freedom is very different from its American counterpart. God's words to Pharaoh, as conveyed by Moses, were not simply "Let My people go", but "Let My people go, that they may serve Me." (Ex. 7:26) Only when they accepted the obligation to serve God through Torah was the Jewish people's liberation complete.
But there's a problem with this explanation for counting the Omer. According to most authorities, the Torah's commandment to count the days from Pesach to Shavuot applies only when we can bring the Omer offering (Lev. 23:15), i.e., when the Beit haMikdash (Temple) is standing and sacrifices may be brought. Our count of the Omer today is not a Biblical commandment but merely a rabbinic commandment in remembrance of the Beit HaMikdash. But if the purpose of the count is to reinforce the link between freedom and Torah, then why should it matter whether the Beit HaMikdash is standing or not?
Part of the answer is that while Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah, that is not all that it celebrates. Another focus of the holiday is on the Jewish people's inheritance of the Land of Israel, and the centrality of Jerusalem. In Parshat Pinchas, which enumerates the festival sacrifices (Num. 28:26 ), the Torah mentions Yom haBikkuriim (the day of the first fruits) as one of the names of Shavuot, and we know from Parshat Ki Tavo (Deut.26:1-11) that the bikurim were brought to the Beit HaMikdash and were accompanied with a declaration that specifically linked our liberation from Egypt with our inheritance of the Land of Israel and by implication (through the reference in v. 9 to "this place") with the Beit HaMikdash as well. Similarly, when, at the Seder, we express our gratitude to God (in Dayeinu) for all that He has done for us, we begin with the exodus from Egypt and end not with the giving of the Torah (although that is one of the events mentioned) but with the building of the Beit HaMikdash.
It seems then that the process that began with our liberation from Egyptian bondage needed three additional elements in order to be complete: receiving the Torah, conquering the Land of Israel and building the Beit HaMikdash. The Torah's commandment to count the Omer encompasses all of these elements. But what is the substantive connection that links them?
There is a hint of the answer, I think, at the end of the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot. After recounting the birth of Ruth's son Obed, the book tells us (4:17): "he was the father of Jesse, father of David." The book's text could end there, but it doesn't. Instead it adds an additional five verses (v. 18-22) recounting the genealogical line from Peretz, Judah's son, to King David.
What's the purpose of that addendum? It's not there to tell us of the link between Ruth and David, for the previous verse already told us that. Its purpose, apparently, is to stress the link between David and Peretz. The aspiration for that link had been stated before (4:12), but these verses come to stress that the link was actualized.
What's so important about the connection between Peretz and the House of David, of which Ruth is the progenitor? As we learn in Parshat Vayeishev (Gen. 38:12-16) Peretz was the son of Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar. Tamar had originally been the wife of Judah's first-born Er, who died. When his brother Onan did not fulfill the duty of levirate marriage with his brother's wife, he too died, and Judah, afraid to lose any more sons, would not allow his third son Shelah to take her in marriage. Tamar thereupon disguised herself as a prostitute and enticed Judah to have relations with her, and Peretz was the first born of that union. Judah's response, when Tamar confronted him with proof that he had fathered her child, was to concede: "She is more righteous than I" (38:26)
The Davidic line, and the Messianic redemption that will flow from it, are the ultimate products of Peretz. The story of Judah and Tamar exemplifies the Torah's view of redemption, and how different it is from that which prevails in Christian thought, with its notions of immaculate conception and virgin birth. To Christians, redemption has its origin in perfection. For Jews, by contrast, redemption has its origin in teshuva (repentance) and atonement.
The most important function of the Beit HaMikdash when it stood was to facilitate atonement, which is the reconciliation with God that flows from teshuva. The final words of the "Dayeinu" section of the Haggadah that we read on Pesach acknowledge our gratitude to God for giving us the Beit HaMikdash "to atone for our sins." (lekhaper al chatoteinu). But what is easily overlooked is that the need for atonement is an inevitable result of receiving the Torah.
The freedom we were given on Pesach could not be complete until we received the Torah and thereby committed ourselves to God's service. But receiving the gift of Torah would not be liberating unless it included a mechanism for reconciling with God when, as is inevitable for fallible human beings, we fall short of the Torah's demands. Absent such a mechanism, there would always be a tension between the freedom we celebrate on Pesach and the Torah we celebrate on Shavuot.
Perhaps the Torah, by limiting its commandment of counting these seven complete weeks to those periods of history when the Beit HaMikdash (or its predecessor, the Mishkan) was available to effect atonement for us, is acknowledging that we cannot truly experience freedom in Torah unless a mechanism for atonement is available. And maybe the Sages, by maintaining the counting of the Omer as a rabbinic commandment even when we do not have the Beit HaMikdash, were expressing confidence that the Jewish people, even in exile, can find alternative mechanisms for atonement. Whatever the circumstances of history in which we find ourselves, we can always, by making use of the spiritual tools that are available to us, experience ultimate freedom through our attempts (imperfect though they may be) to meet the challenge of Torah. And the more we persevere in the struggle to meet that challenge, the more confident we can be of recovering the ultimate tool of atonement under the guidance of David's ultimate descendant.