middot cleanliness torah counting and cleanliness

counting and cleanliness

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-omercal"And the Lord said to Moses, Go to the people, and sanctify them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their clothes, and be ready by the third day; for the third day the Lord will come down in the sight of all the people upon Mount Sinai." (Ex. 19:10–11)

As we continue to learn mussar through the days of sefirat ha-omer (counting the omer), we can see some helpful parallels between the two topics. Mussar is all about spiritual preparation and progress, and so is sefirat ha-omer, if we understand it properly. One tradition views this period—the transition from Passover, season of our freedom, to Shavuot, season of the giving of our Torah—as providing time for the newly-freed Hebrew slaves to rise up from their condition of bondage and become ready for the revelation of Torah. Some rabbinic sources speak of 49 levels of impurity that they needed to transcend. But even apart from that specific interpretation, it makes sense that it would take time to shed the slave mentality enough to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. The cleansing of garments that the Lord commanded at the end of this process culminated seven weeks of cleansing that led up to it.

But this whole theme of cleanliness seems at first to be misplaced. After all, didn’t we just go through a rigorous cleansing process before Pesach? What more is left to be cleansed after Pesach, as we count the days of the Omer? Perhaps the cleansing process before Pesach is given in part to teach us how to make a thorough preparation after Pesach as we approach Shavuot.

For example, you don’t want to try to clean house for Passover in just a day or two. It takes lead time. Many families stop buying foods with chametz and get whole sections of their homes cleaned weeks ahead of Passover. So it makes sense to take the seven weeks leading up to Shavuot to rid our lives of all the distractions and pollutions of ordinary life and get ready to celebrate the giving of Torah and the outpouring of the Ruach.

Here’s another lesson from Passover: once the cleansing is accomplished, it still must be maintained through the eight days of Passover. We don’t cleanse our homes of leaven, have a lovely Seder the first night, and then order in pizza the next night. Instead, we eat matzah for a week to express and sustain the hard-earned cleanliness. Likewise, counting the Omer should be a progression that doesn’t relinquish the gains we make each day, but builds anticipation for fresh encounter with Hashem.

Other articles highlight the importance of inward as well as outward cleansing; I’ll only add for now the importance of maintaining both. As in Exodus 19, washing our garments should be congruent with maintaining inward cleanliness. Outward cleanliness reminds us how much upkeep inward cleanliness requires.

So, how exactly do we maintain and increase cleanliness? This week, we’re still early in the process of counting the omer and we can add two elements to our routine: first, a quick daily search for inner chametz, trusting in the light of the Ruach (rather than self-analysis) to reveal it; and, second, simple confession of such chametz, trusting in the same Ruach (rather than self-effort) to burn it out.

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