When the Temple existed in Jerusalem, the Omer Sacrifice was brought every year. The first grains of barley harvested were offered as a Mincha sacrifice to the G-d of Israel, and this was the start of a count of fifty days, called Counting the Omer. The days were counted from the time that the Omer Sacrifice was brought until the holiday of Shavuot arrived, when bread made out of wheat was sacrificed on the Altar. Thus, there is a transition from a sacrifice of barley to one made from wheat.
Barley is considered animal food, while wheat is food fit for man. The Exodus from Egypt raises us from a status of being enslaved to our animal instincts to a return to a status of humanity. It takes fifty days to become free from the shackles of the lowly culture of Egypt until we can come to hear the word of G-d on Mount Sinai. Fifty days to go from barley to wheat. However, during these fifty days we also move from one type of freedom to another. The first freedom is the opposite of slavery. We are no longer in bondage to Pharaoh, we are no longer in bondage to nature. But there is also an internal type of freedom which is revealed in man the moment he is capable of hearing the word of G-d and of observing the mitzvot of the Creator, who made the world by His command.
This transformation can be described as moving from a basic type of freedom, related to breaking our bonds to another person, to true freedom, which is the ability to listen to our own selves, to the discourse in our own soul. We can compare the time of counting the Omer to a healing process. The time when a man is cured of an illness is very beautiful, it is a time when a person becomes happier and happier. It is a time when his heart is filled with hope.
On the other hand, this is also a time of great danger. A person may no longer be ill and no longer spend all his time lying in bed, but since he has not yet reached full health he is in danger of regressing. He must be carefully guarded. In fact, the nation of Israel encountered many tragedies during this period. The war against Amalek was the first war that the nation of Israel experienced, and it took place a short time before the giving of the Torah, during the counting of the Omer.
The same is true of later periods of our history. The battles for independence fought by Bar Kochba against the Romans also took place in this period of the Omer, and many students of our greatest scholar, Rabbi Akiva, who fought in the war, died at the time. Thus, this period which started out as a time of joy was transformed during our history into a time of mourning.
With the mercy of G-d, in our time we have returned somewhat to the original happiness of this time period, through the great events of Yom Haatzmaut (Independence Day) and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day). However, even in ancient times a spark of light began to shine during this period. A great light came forth from the school of learning of Rabbi Akiva, who was killed in the wake of the revolt, through one of his greatest disciples, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who hid in a cave out of fear of the Romans. But on the day of his death Rabbi Shimon revealed wondrous mystic secrets of the Torah which in the end came down to us as the book of the Zohar, the basis for the secrets of the Kabbalah. This event is marked on "Lag Ba'Omer," the thirty-third day of the Omer. On this day, two weeks before Shavuot, the mystic inner secrets of the Torah were revealed, and they gave us the strength to withstand the many calamities that befell us during the exile.
During the entire period of darkness, we knew deep within ourselves that a mystic Torah existed which in the end would provide the power to spread the light of the Torah over the whole world. This secret Torah of mysticism is called the Tree of Life in the holy books, in order to differentiate it from the Tree of Knowledge. We are all familiar with the story of Adam and Eve, who ate from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The way that the wise men of the Kabbalah explain this sin was not simply that they ate from the tree but that they did not eat first from the Tree of Life, before eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Knowledge is important, it can contribute to the progress of humanity, but if it is meant to replace life itself – that is, the internal wellspring of human life – it is lacking and can even lead to death.
Thus, at this point in time, we mark the fact that within the complex historical processes in which we participate there is a fine ray of light that lights up the mystic aspects of the Tree of Life from within. We thus see that this entire great period of the Counting of the Omer is very complex. Note that it also includes reminders of such tragedies as Holocaust Memorial Day, one of the greatest calamities of our entire history, the mourning for Rabbi Akiva's students, the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, and many other events that took place to our nation in the Middle Ages, such as the riots and the Crusades. Many such events took place during the time of the Counting of the Omer.
But at the same time we can feel tremendous joy for our nation which is regaining its health and progressing towards real freedom – the freedom that we will share with all human beings who want to be set free from the shackles of nature in order to be able to listen to the word of G-d.