There is a passage in the book of Proverbs in which the Torah itself is the speaker, and anthropomorphically describes itself as having pre-existed the entire created universe. After such statements as "When [G‑d] established the heavens, I was there; when He drew a circle over the surface of the deep", the Torah goes on to say, "I was with Him as a nursling, and I was His delight every day, playing before Him at all times; playing with the world, His earth, and my delights were with the sons of man." (Proverbs 8:30-31) These statements are not merely poetic; they contain profound mystical references to the essential quality of the Torah, the bestowal of which we celebrate on the holiday of Shavuot.

The Torah's being described as a "nursling" ("amon" in Hebrew) is reminiscent of Moses' statement to G‑d in which Moses has just been told by G‑d that the Jews would miraculously be supplied with meat in the desert, and Moses "complains", as it were, that he is not equipped to be the instrument of that event: "[Who am I,] Moses says to G‑d, that You should say to me, 'Carry it [the Jewish nation] in your bosom as a nursing person [in Hebrew, "omen"] carries a suckling child' ... from where am I [to get] meat?" (Num.11:12-13)

Here, the references to nursing an infant likewise signify something deeper than simple literary imagery. A newborn infant is not fully developed; a baby has a lot of growing up yet to do. At first, a child is almost exclusively a creature of emotion, feeling pleasure, fear, etc. but unable to think about or understand what it experiences. Even its emotions need time to blossom and develop all the nuance of which they are capable. (For example, a child does not experience "bittersweet" or poignant feelings - just wild joy or raging anger.)

…so does nursing represent and engender the spiritual development and growth of the soul's emotional attributes….

While it is true that in modern times, many infants are not nursed at all, this natural practice symbolizes a certain spiritual growth. As actual milk promotes growth of a child's limbs, so does nursing represent and engender the spiritual development and growth of the soul's emotional attributes. Over the period of nursing, the infant's emotions mature and develop. However, it is not until significantly later that the child's intellect emerges, which is why a newborn, although able to produce sound (and sometimes plenty of that!) is not capable of intelligent speech. This later stage of development is mystically associated with the child's weaning and introduction to solid food, specifically bread, as the Talmud teaches, "A child does not know to call 'Father!' or 'Mother!' until it has tasted the taste of grain" (Berachot 40a, in support of the proposition that the Tree of Knowledge, which introduced an intellectual awareness to Adam and Eve, was actually wheat).

All the above can be brought to bear upon our topic. Kabbalistically, the three major Jewish holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Succot all have a role to play in the creation of Jewish souls. On the seventh day of Passover, new souls are "born", as it were, in the sense that they emerge from the lofty spiritual realm of Atzilut, which is inseparable from G‑d Himself, into the relatively "lower" realm of Beriya, where they are considered separate entities. However, these "newborn" souls are not yet fully developed. As explained elsewhere, a Jewish soul possesses ten spiritual attributes, seven of which parallel the emotional attributes of a person and three of which, intellectual attributes.

The newborn soul, like a newborn infant, still needs time before its emotional faculties are fully grown; this applies particularly to the so-called "animal soul", which is the source of a person's natural inclinations. These too, and not only one's spiritual tendencies, need to be developed into vehicles for the service of G‑d. Each of the seven emotional attributes, when "mature", is a composite of all seven (making 49 emotional components of the soul in all), and for these "nuances" to come out, the soul must undergo a period of spiritual "nursing". This refers to the 44 days of the Omer period between the seventh day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.

The Omer period, the time in which the Jews count the days from the Exodus from Egypt until the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, begins on the second night of Passover and contains 49 days in total. These correspond to the 49 emotional attributes of the soul. However, the first five days of this counting (i.e. the first five days of the count), from the second until the seventh day of Passover, represent the mystical five attributes of kindness (the five cheseds, the first five emotional attributes within the compound attribute of chesed, or kindness, itself) which engender the growth of the rest of the attributes. These first five are identified with the realm of Atzilut, leaving only 44 which develop after "birth".

The mitzvah of counting the Omer…serves the mystical function of nursing the Jewish souls….

The mitzvah of counting the Omer, then, serves the mystical function of "nursing" the Jewish souls, developing their core emotional attributes to maturity. However, nursing is not an end in itself; it leads to weaning and the ability to assimilate solid food. This is symbolized by bread, and, just as "the taste of grain" introduces a new level of intellectual capacity to a toddler, it is the spiritual "bread" which the souls receive after nursing that brings out their intellectual attributes. This "bread" is the Torah itself, which is called "food" for the soul (see Talmud Chagiga 14a; Bereishit Rabba 43:7), and about which it is written, "Come, eat of My bread." (Proverbs 9:5)

The holiday of Shavuot, when the Torah was given to the Jews, thus mystically corresponds to the "weaning" of the newborn souls. That is why on Shavuot we are commanded to offer up a sacrifice consisting chiefly of two loaves of bread (Lev. 23:17): one representing the Written Torah (the Bible) and the other representing the Oral Torah (the entire corpus of Jewish knowledge, including the Mishna and Talmud, which reveals the latent meaning of the Biblical verses). This level is granted to us by G‑d in response to the Jews' having nullified themselves in deference to Him during reflection on the Shema prayer, which is why the verse says that the two loaves are to be brought "from your dwellings" (in Hebrew, "mimoshvoteichem"), which can also mean, "from your sitting", since the Shema is properly recited while sitting.

Moses…felt inadequate to this latter task of introducing the Jewish people to the solid food of the Torah….

"Nursing" can be understood in the sense that it is a preparatory stage leading to eventual weaning onto bread. Moses, in his humility, felt inadequate to this latter task of introducing the Jewish people to the "solid food" of the Torah, which is what he meant by the protest, "[Who am I] that You should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as a nursing person carries a suckling child' ... from where am I [to get] meat?"

Now, it must be understood that G‑d Himself is absolutely transcendent and unknowable. Any relation to Him that we have is a gift from G‑d, which He bestowed upon us through the vehicle of the Torah: by "compressing", as it were, Himself into the Torah, we are enabled to grasp G‑d Himself through our grasp of the Torah. The Torah itself is the vessel, the conduit, which contains and transmits this G‑dliness to us. This is why, although Moses modestly felt he was unable to bring G‑dliness all the way down to our level (that of "bread"), the Torah itself does describe itself as performing this function, as it says, "I was with Him as a nursling."

That verse goes on to say, "I was His delight every day." This refers to the joy and pleasure which come only after intellectual comprehension. Not only is the Torah a "nursling" which brings out the intellectual level of the Jewish soul, it continues on to reveal the even deeper aspect of Delight.

[Adapted by Yitzchak Wagshul from a discourse in Likutei Torah; Copyright 2001 Yitzchok D. Wagshul /]