As has been explained by numerous commentators and philosophers, the biblical commandment to count 49 days (Vayikra 23:15) between Pesach and Shavuoth, is to encourage man not just to count these days but to use this time to take account of himself and to introspect. The Exodus from Egypt, which is the beginning of our forefathers’ first encounter with liberty and its culmination with the giving of the Torah, the law of moral freedom, at Mount Sinai, should become ingrained in our personalities, inspiring a constant elevation of our very being. The purpose of the period between these two festivals is therefore to re-enact and relive these sublime moments so as to become elevated.
It is a major tragedy when Jews start to believe that these festivals are given just to remember what happened thousands of years ago. Instead, they should utilize these festivals to realize that the goal is not just to perform but above all to transform.
Nothing is more dangerous for man than to stay spiritually stale. It is for this reason than one is required to count the 49 days of the Omer. To prepare ourselves for the upcoming celebration on Shavuoth of the giving of the Torah we are asked to climb a ladder of 49 spiritual steps in which each day will add another dimension to our souls.
Commentators are therefore surprised to notice that the actual counting of the Omer starts on the second day of Pesach and not on the first (ibid.) If the purpose of the counting is indeed to re-enact the whole historical period between Pesach and Shavuoth why not start on the same day that the Exodus took place which was also the first day in which Jews started their journey to moral freedom? Why only start counting on the second day when in fact this period of transformation started one day earlier?
Carefully examining the condition of the Jews on the day of the actual Exodus (the first day of Pesach) we become aware of a strange phenomenon. It is the astonishing passivity of the Jews that stands out. There is no action whatsoever and no initiative. Jews were told to stay inside their homes, and simply wait for Moshe to give the sign to start leaving Egypt. There are no planned confrontations with the Egyptians, no speeches of national revival, no demonstrations, but only silence, absolute quiet and a spirit of inert waiting. Only after Moshe calls on the Jews to move is there motion, and the Jews humbly leave Egypt.
What becomes increasingly clear is that it is only God who acts on this day. There is no human initiative. It is solely God who takes them out, and it is He who leads the way. It is a moment where there cannot be any misunderstanding about who is calling the shots. It is the day of God’s unfathomable strength. While man stays utterly passive, it is God “who steals the show” and gives evidence of His absolute sovereignty. The only thing man is asked to do is to follow like a slave follows his master. God’s protection is impervious.
But once they have left the borders of Egypt, we see a radical change. Suddenly the Israelites wake up from their imposed passivity and realize that they had better start preparing for a long road through the desert. It is now that they need to show courage and patience. The earlier divine protection is no longer watertight. Only a few days on the road, the Israelites learn that Pharaoh and his army are approaching with the intent to take revenge. He wants the Jews back home and if necessary will use all the forces at his disposal to accomplish this goal. Why, the Israelites must have wondered, does God not make sure that Pharaoh stays home? Yesterday he did not make any noise; he didn’t even attempt to stop them from leaving! They even ask Moshe why they have to die in the desert (Shemoth 14:11). It all looked so great on that first day of the Exodus! Everything was taken care of. God’s protection was complete and without deficiency. So why not continue this most comfortable situation?
Indeed, on the second day, it is no longer God who pulls all the strings. It is as if God has decided to move into the background, and man will have to become more active. Only after a lot of complaining and fervent prayers He is prepared to step in and provide them with a basic protection and decides to split the Sea of Reeds. Could God not have split the sea a little earlier to save the Jews unnecessary anguish?! Why not let things continue like the day before when everything was under control and nearly a messianic condition was prevailing?
The point is clear: It is man who has to carry his own responsibility. The option of sitting in one’s armchair and passively relying on God and His benevolence does not exist. Man is brought into the world to take moral action, to grow spiritually and dignify himself through hardship and struggle. It is the desert that functions as the classroom where Jews learn to become a light to the nations and set a moral example. This is the purpose of life, and this is its condition.
But why, then, did He first create a day that resembled paradise only to plunge them the next day into worries and feelings of insecurity? Because without the knowledge and the experience that ultimately God is in total power, their obligation to be morally responsible would stand on quicksand. Why be moral when there is no unshakable foundation on which this morality depends? Man first has to learn that there is a purpose to his struggle for moral behavior, not just a utilitarian one, but, above all, an existential one. He first has to be convinced that there is more to life than meets the eye. First it has to become clear that God and only God is the ultimate source of everything. At such a moment, man has to stand in awe, overwhelmed by the grandeur of God’s infinite power. Man needs to become completely powerless before he is able to take action and become responsible.
Because of this, the real struggle for moral liberty started the day after the Exodus from Egypt. The first day was a given. It was the day of God and not of man. It was the day of passivity and complete surrender. Only the next day the spiritual labor of man started. It is consequently the first day of his spiritual elevation.
It is for this reason that throughout all the generations we first have to learn what God’s power is all about and that is what we celebrate on the first day of Pesach and specifically when reading the Hagada. Only after we are totally overpowered by God’s absolute omnipotence and spend a day in contemplative awe, are we able to take moral action on the second day.
This, we believe, is the reason why the counting of the Omer only starts on the second day. The first day does not count.