The Gemara in Masekhet Menachot (65a) discusses the debate that raged during the Second Temple period regarding the mitzva of ketizrat ha-omer – the first harvest, which was brought as an offering in the Mikdash. The Torah, in Sefer Vayikra (23:11), requires bringing this offering “mi-machorat ha-Shabbat” (“the day after Shabbat”), which Chazal understood as a reference to the 16th of Nissan, the day after the first day of Pesach. The heretical Baytusi sect, however, argued that the word “Shabbat” in this verse must be understood to mean the weekly Shabbat. In their view, then, the korban ha-omer was brought on the first Sunday after the 15th of Nissan, and not necessarily on the 16th of Nissan.
The Gemara documents an exchange on this subject between Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai and a Baytusi leader, who suggested an explanation for his sect’s position. Offering the korban ha-omer – and thus beginning the seven-week omer period – on Sunday meant that Shavuot, the day following the 49th and final day of the omer, always falls on Sunday. The Baytusi scholar thus contended that “our teacher Moshe was a lover of Israel,” and he therefore commanded us to observe Shavuot specifically on Sunday, so we can enjoy two consecutive festive days of rest – Shabbat and Shavuot. Rabban Yochanan countered, “If our teacher Moshe was a lover of Israel, why did he have them stay in the wilderness for forty years.” If Moshe was truly interested in our comfort and enjoyment, Rabban Yochanan argued, then he would have led us directly to Eretz Yisrael without any delay, rather than have us wander in the wilderness for forty years.
Of course, as Rashi comments, Rabban Yochanan did not present this rationale as a serious argument. He said it as a “dichui be-alma,” a silly retort to a silly claim. Nevertheless, we might wonder whether perhaps there is some significance to the implied association between the traditional interpretation of “mi-machorat ha-Shabbat,” and the forty years of travel in the wilderness.
By insisting on beginning the omer period immediately after the day celebrating the Exodus, our tradition loudly proclaims that the two events – the Exodus and Matan Torah – are inextricably bound to one another. Our belief is that our emergence as a free nation cannot be separated in any way from our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. God granted us freedom from Egypt so we could become subservient to Him, and not simply to be “free.” As such, the seven-week period between the Exodus and Matan Torah was not merely the time needed to journey from Egypt to Sinai; it was a period of growth and preparation. Since the purpose of the Exodus was for us to receive the Torah at Sinai, these weeks were necessary as a time for us to prepare ourselves for the experience of Ma’amad Har Sinai.
By the same token, we could not enter Eretz Yisrael immediately. The purpose of our becoming a nation was to follow God’s laws and represent Him to the world, and so we could not enter the land and establish our country before undergoing the necessary process of preparation. Just as Benei Yisrael required seven weeks of preparation before accepting the Torah, they required forty years of preparation before entering Eretz Yisrael and beginning to build their country.
The Baytusim argued that Moshe’s “love” for Am Yisrael would be expressed in his legislating a “long weekend” in the form of Shavuot always falling on Sunday. Our tradition, however, believes that Moshe’s “love” was manifested through, among other things, his role as teacher and guide, patiently and devotedly leading us along the difficult, complex process of growth that we needed before receiving the Torah and entering Eretz Yisrael. This, perhaps, is the fundamental message underlying our tradition’s interpretation of “mi-machorat ha-Shabbat” – that we achieved our freedom not for our personal comfort and enjoyment, but rather to undergo the long but ever so meaningful process of growth so we can become worthy servants of our Creator.