A teaching of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, from Kedushas Levi, Parshat Emor, on Sfirat HaOmer.
And count for yourselves, from the day after the Shabbat, from the day you bring an omer as a wave offering, seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the LORD. Leviticus 23:15-16 (1)
The ideal request to make of God is that we be able to serve Him with a whole heart. When we are on a high spiritual level, then this is what we pray for, and we forget about our physical needs. But there are also times when we are not on such a high level, and we ask to be fed, housed, clothed, etc. The higher level, at which we ask only to serve God, is called Shabbat, for Shabbat is a part of the World to Come [when we will have no physical needs, and only praise God] (2)…
During the days of the Counting of the Omer we request good things for ourselves, and on Shavuot we raise up those things we asked for and offer them to the service of God, for on Shavuot everything we ask for is for God’s sake. This is the meaning of the verse, “On the day of the Firstfruits,when you offer to God a new gift-offering, on your Festival of Weeks…”: what you did during the “weeks,” that is, during the Counting of the Omer, that was “yours,” that is, for your own sake, bring now to God (3).
1) The mitzvah of Sfirat HaOmer, Counting of the Omer, is given in the Torah to connect the holiday of Passover with Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. An omer is a measurement, in this case a measurement of barley that was offered on the second day of Passover, when the counting begins. While the Torah gives little meaning for this ritual, Jewish tradition has greatly elaborated on the spiritual meanings behind it. Two overarching themes are that the counting connects Passover, Zman Heruteinu, when we were set free, with Shavuot, Zman Matan Torateinu, the time when we received Torah, connecting our God-given freedom with our responsibility to serve God, and that it is a period of personal growth and refinement, a “49-step Program,” as it were. 2) Berachot 57b 3) Numbers 28:26; here the Kedushas Levi is expanding the “Feast of Weeks” to include the Counting of the Omer — not an unprecedented step, since the entire time from Passover to Shavuot is often considered one festival.
There is a longstanding debate within Judaism, carried on into Hasidism, about whether it is proper to ask God for our material needs. The rabbinic tradition clearly came down on the side of yes, giving us the Amidah, which balances praise and thanksgiving with requests, for everything from spiritual understanding to rain for a better harvest. The mystical tradition, which understands all physical lacks as manifestations of spiritual lacks in the Shekhinah, or the immanent aspect of God, sees these prayers likewise as requests for spiritual wholeness, dressed in the language of physical need. Some of the Hasidic masters insisted that we pray for not just the physical needs listed in the Amidah, but for every physical need we have, as a way of creating a continuous connection to God and reminding us of our dependence on Him. Others were scandalized that, when the Shekhinah is in exile in the world and is dependent on our prayers to redeem Her, we should waste a single opportunity asking for something as base as a job or a full pantry. It seems to me that here the Kedushas Levi is, true to form, proposing a working compromise: those times we call “Shabbat,” whether they be the seventh day or a holiday, are peaks in our spiritual experience and should be peaks in our prayer experience, when we ask only for spiritual gifts to serve God. The bulk of the time, however, as humans, we do think about our physical needs, and it is only natural to turn to God for their fulfillment. What I like best about this teaching is that it doesn’t see this as a binary split between two opposite aspects of being human (the physical and the spiritual), or as a necessary compromise to human weakness. Instead, true to Hasidic tradition, both sides are seen as not only natural but divinely ordered, as evidenced in the Torah’s use of the word lachem, “for yourselves,” and our job is not to suppress the physical or even begrudgingly allow for it, but to raise it up to God’s service during those peak times, making something “new” of it. Then, instead of a binary high/low picture of our spiritual lives, we have a spectrum where everything is joined, a series of ebb tides and flood tides, always reaching for higher ground.