What is the preparation required for these days? How can one prepare oneself for receiving the Torah?
Aside from Sefirat HaOmer, there is another period in the year dedicated to rectification and purification – the Ten Days of Teshuva. Yet there is a difference between these two periods.
During the Ten Days of Teshuva and the month of Elul, Teshuva is required for sins actually committed, and one must strengthen himself regarding future conduct. By contrast, the days of Sefirat HaOmer are not days of Teshuva from sins; the theme of these days is rectification of the soul, not rectification of deeds. During this period, one is required to examine one’s inner nature more than one’s outer deeds. It is possible that, in practice, one does all that is required of a person of his caliber, yet there may still be defects that can find within himself. There are people who, despite their good deeds, have character defects, and Sefirat HaOmer is the time to rectify those defects. In order to receive the Torah fully, one must go through a process of self-refinement.
The Talmud states that our patriarch Abraham fulfilled the entire Torah even before it was given (Massekhet Kiddushin 82a). Some explain that if a person were truly refined – as was our patriarch Abraham – he would fulfill the Torah of his own accord, without having to receive the Torah from above.* Rectification of the soul serves as an introduction to receiving the Torah.
The days of sefira are days of inner growth, as well as days of self-improvement and war against all character traits that block one’s spiritual development. The seven weeks of sefira are linked to the seven attributes of sefirot: Ḥesed (love), Gevura (strength), Tiferet (beauty), Netzah (perpetuity), Hod (majesty), Yesod (foundation), and Malkhut (kingship). The sefirot are a kind of guidance for rectification of character, and in each one of the seven weeks we direct our attention to a different element represented by one of these attributes.
This idea is expressed in the “Ribono Shel Olam – Master of the Universe” prayer, in which we say, each day after the counting:
By the merit of Sefirat HaOmer which I counted today, may whatever I have impaired in the sefira of be rectified. May I be purified and sanctified with heavenly holiness, and through this may a beneficent outpouring be effected in all worlds, to refine our lives and spirits [so that they are free] of any dross or defect, purifying us and sanctifying us with Your exalted holiness.
We rectify ourselves inwardly, stage after stage, in order to receive the Torah, It is impossible to receive this gift without preparation; but without the inner preparation, the Torah’s impact on us is not as it could be.
These days of Sefirat HaOmer are essentially days of inner struggle; hence, there is a sadness spread over them. This is not mourning, but solemnity. This solemnity accompanies us until we reach the day of conclusion, the festival of Shavuot, on which light shines forth and joy breaks out and the journey reaches its culmination.
Thus, the inner rationale for the customs of Sefirat HaOmer is not emphasis on mourning but rather avoidance of distraction. The preparation required during these days neither allows nor leaves one time to engage in other matters. This time is dedicated to purification and to rectification of character, which are preliminary stages that enable one to receive the Torah fully.
*The story is told that when one of the great tzaddikim was still a boy, he was studying tractate and reached the discussion dealing with a person who loves studying Tractate Shabbat and reached the discussion dealing with a person who loses track of the day of the week and does not know which day is the Sabbath (Massekhet 69b). He asked, “How is it possible for a person not to know which day is the Sabbath? Why, one sees it immediately! One can simply go outside and see that now it is Sabbath!” In order to be able to see that “now it is Sabbath,” in order to now on one’s own what one must do on the Sabbath, one must possess a refined and pure spirit to such a measure that he will be attentive to all this. However, in most people, there is some distortion that does not allow them to distinguish between good and evil and to naturally do what is good; they must be told what should be done. This distortion is what should be set right during Sefirat HaOmer.