The sages attached paramount importance to the Omer, the first sheaves of the harvest brought to the Temple, then refined into flour and offered on the altar (Leviticus 23:9ff). It was only for the sake of the Omer, they say, that God gave Israel to Abraham and his descendants (Leviticus Rabbah 28:6). At the most critical junctures in our national history, continues the midrash, Israel would be saved only for the sake of the Omer. These rabbinic homilies extolling the Omer are based on Scriptural catchwords – a standard hermeneutical technique. But they actually represent a marvelous idea described so well by the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, Dr. Isaac Herzog.
Rabbi Herzog reminds us that the Omer, according to tradition, consisted of barley, a grain relegated to animal fodder (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 14a-b). A successful barley harvest was more a boon to horses and mules than to people (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 3b). Yet it is this unlikely grain that the Torah insists be used for the wave offering in the Temple!
What this anomaly suggests is an important parallel between the Omer and living Jewish lives. In order to prepare the Omer for Temple use, the barley grain had to undergo a laborious process of winnowing, sifting, and refining until the requisite measure was completed for the wave offering. Similarly, argues Rabbi Herzog, the great task that Judaism sets before us is to refine and transform the baser animal instincts inside us and complete our spiritual development into human beings. As the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 44:1) teaches: the purpose of the commandments is to refine humankind. In other words, the Torah has provided us with a network of laws embracing every aspect of life so as to help us refine and spiritualize the animalistic in our nature and to help bring ourselves nearer to God.
And this is the thought suggested by the Omer. Barley – a food for animals – is transformed and the final result is then suitable as an offering to God. The mission of Israel is to develop into a people that can realize the Omer-idea.