In our Musaf prayer that we say every day of the week of Pesach, we pray words of contradiction. First, we say “…And give us, Eternal One, our God, with love, appointed times for joy, holidays and times for rejoicing, this holiday of matzot, the time of our freedom, a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.”

Immediately afterwards, we say “And because of our sins, we were exiled from our land… and we can not ascend, appear, and worship before you….”

If we are fully immersed in the words of these prayers, the contradiction can be felt in the most jarring way. 

We can feel an ultimate acceptance and happy serenity that the ultimate One of being, the giver of life and death, is constant and eternal, and the brilliant sacredness of existence continues no matter what the state of our own personal life may be. At this time, we dwell in the understanding that because we are released from bondage to another human being, we are free to fully apprehend the sacred beauty that underlies everything that is, and to live in a way that honors that sacred beauty. If we are deeply concentrated enough on the meanings of the words in the siddur, feelings of happiness, transcendent understanding, appreciation, and peace may come over us. 

We are suddenly brought down from that transcendent height to a prayer in which we express the profound inadequacy of our ways of perceiving sacredness and acting upon it. “D’vir beitecha,” the innermost sanctum of Your Temple, the most profound and most complete means of living in service of the Divine, is broken. 

Rather than mourn the serenity engendered by the earlier parts of the prayer, we can find the harmony between those two aspects of it. They are, after all, also aspects of Pesach. The seder commemorates our release from slavery. The counting of the Omer begins on the second night of the holiday. Pesach is zman cheruteinu, our time of freedom. The counting of the Omer is a period of mourning over the loss of our Temple. At least in the beginning, these two things coincide.

We celebrate our freedom, but we do not celebrate perfect spiritual awareness or moral infallibility. We acknowledge how able we are to choose our ways of perceiving our situation in the world, but do not pretend to have mastered that ability. We celebrate the fact that we are a free people, but do not pretend that our people have reached their ideal state. We eat matzah and sing Hallel, but we also refrain from certain pleasures in mourning for the Temple to which we are unable to bring our omer of barley.

This blend of celebration and mourning is a reminder to us that we always have more work to do in our own spiritual growth, and more work to do in improving the lives of those around us. It is also important to note that the solemn period of the counting of the Omer begins with celebration. We give ourselves the happiness of freedom partly to enable us to do the necessary work that the Omer implies.

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