By: Rav Zion Luz
The Gemara in Yevamot (62b) relates:
R. Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students ... and they all died in a single time period because they did not treat one another with respect ... It is taught, they all died between Pesach and Atzeret [Shavuot]. We mourn this spiritual Holocaust to this very day through the mourning practices of the Sefira period. The fact that Chazal designate this time as the period "from Pesach to Atzeret" and not with dates requires explanation. Moreover, according to some of the Poskim (as is commonly practiced today), R. Akiva's talmidim died only until Lag Ba'omer, so why does it say, "between Pesach and Atzeret?" By identifying the period as such, Chazal are trying to tell us that the very nature of this time can cause the social problem that was described.
The "sefarim hakedoshim" quote from the AR"I z"l that the days of Sefirat Ha'omer are meant to be days of great joy for Klal Yisrael. Support for this can be found in the Pesikta: "The Atzeret of Chag Succot [Shemini Atzeret] should have been fifty days after the first day of Succot, just like the Atzeret of Pesach [Shavuot]." We see that the days of Sefirat Ha'omer are a kind of Chol Hamoed between Pesach and Shavuot. If so, it is shocking that this spiritual Holocaust came specifically in that period as a result of the social failing amongst the Talmidei Chachamim!
"You shall count for yourselves -- from the morrow of the Shabbat." (Vayikra 23:15) In contrast to the Sadducees, who explained the reference to "Shabbat" literally, we maintain that the count is from the day after the Yom Tov of Pesach. (Menachot 65a) If so, why does the Torah write, "from the morrow of the Shabbat" and not "from the morrow of Pesach?" R. Yochanan b. Zakkai answers that this pasuk refers to a case when Pesach itself occurs on Shabbat, and therefore the count from after Shabbat and after Pesach is one and the same. However, when Pesach falls in the middle of the week, it says, "you shall count, fifty days," and then we count from the day after Pesach and not from the day after Shabbat. In other words, the ideal count is when Pesach and Shabbat coincide, and then the count is both, "from the morrow of the Shabbat" (seven complete weeks) and also from the day after Pesach (fifty days).
We can explain the philosophical idea behind this by first clarifying the difference between Shabbat and Yom Tov (especially Pesach). The Meshech Chochmah (Vayikra 23:51) explains that "on Shabbat, 'Let every man remain in his place,' ... and therefore each and every person is by himself, and sits and learns Torah alone." Shabbat epitomizes individual, self-focused spiritual worship, whereas "Yom Tov is of the mitzvot that connect the nation one to another." Yom Tov epitomizes the spiritual service of Klal Yisrael as a whole. Shabbat existed before the formation of the nation, whereas the festivals exist only after the existence of Am Yisrael.
The days of Sefira are days of preparation and elevation towards Matan Torah and Chag Shavuot. (Sefer Hachinuch and others) It is a period in which spiritual improvement is required daily. Counting from the "morrow of the Shabbat" means that the beginning point for that growth is the person's private worship. As such, the service is oriented towards each and every one's personal Kabbalat Torah. Sefira from the day after Pesach, on the other hand, signifies that the beginning point is the national spiritual worship as part of Klal Yisrael, and thus the goal of the worship is towards the Kabbalat Torah of Klal Yisrael.
When there is no contrast between the two, and when the personal motivation fits in well with the motivation of Klal Yisrael, this is the ideal and desired manner of worship -- "Pesach occurs on Shabbat," and the count is a double one. However, when there is a conflict between the two kinds of counts, when the personal interest conflicts the national, Klal Yisrael interest, when "Pesach falls out on a weekday" -- then the Sadducees count from the day after Shabbat. To them the personal worship is primary, but we follow in the footsteps of Yaakov Avinu that in this case we count from the day after Pesach. One must subordinate his personal development in the face of Klal Yisrael's development, since the ultimate goal of Kabbalat Torah is the Kabbalat Torah of Klal Yisrael.
Therefore, the days of Sefirat Ha'omer are, on the one hand, days of tremendous joy for Klal Yisrael, but this is when we count from the day after Pesach. If, however, we mistakenly count "from the morrow of the Shabbat" even when Pesach occurs during the week, we can reach the point that on our way to our personal Kabbalat Hatorah we trample one another and do not treat each other with due respect. Therefore, the time of the death of R. Akiva's talmidim was designated as "between Pesach and Atzeret."
Shiur ID: 3753