By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Last week, someone wrote me an email asking how we can be happy in such unsettled times. How can we be expected to smile as we live in a country where the administration seems set on destroying the country? How can we be happy when Jews are getting beat up in Eretz Yisroel? How can we be happy when there are agunos and singles and so many tzaros? How can we be happy when there is acrimony and hatred? This is my answer. Sort of, anyway.
This week’s parsha introduces us to the mitzvah of counting 49 days from Pesach until Shavuos.
The posuk (23:10) states the obligation, on the second day of Pesach, to bring to the kohein “omer reishis ketzirchem,” an omer amount of the first barley of the season. The posuk (23:15) states the mitzvah of counting seven weeks from the day of the omer offering and then commands us to bring a minchas bikkurim of wheat at the culmination of the count. After discussing the other korbanos that are brought along with the shtei halechem, the Torah (23:22) says that the day that korban is brought is mikra kodesh, a holiday, during which it is prohibited to do labor.
The Maharal in Tiferes Yisroel (25) discusses why the initial offering is of barley and the one that marks the culmination of the count is of wheat.
Interestingly, the Torah does not give a name to the korban that is brought on the second day of Pesach. It also does not refer to the counting period as Sefiras Ha’omer. And there is no name given for the Yom Tov that is celebrated at the end of the count.
The Tur (Orach Chaim 493) compares the seven weeks of counting we refer to as Sefiras Ha’omer to the seven years of counting of Shmittah and Yovel. He cites an ancient custom to refrain from work in the evenings between Pesach and Shavuos based on this comparison. Just as it is forbidden to work the land during Shmittah, so would people refrain from work at the time the counting is supposed to take place.
The comparison to the counting of Shmittah and Yovel bears a deeper understanding.
Based on the Maharal (ibid.), we can explain that at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, we had just been freed. Krias Yam Suf was an essential component of the founding of our nation. The revelation of Hashem’s glory elevated and sanctified us. Thus, we bring a korban of barley, which is animal feed, to signify that when we began the journey one day after leaving Mitzrayim, we were at a very low spiritual level.
Gilui Shechinah and Mattan Torah created people, elevating human beings to their highest form.
We count 49 days, and on each day we raise ourselves one more level from where we were during the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim. By the time we reach the culmination of the count, we are expected to have achieved the level necessary for accepting the Torah, which was given to our people on the day the seven-week count ends.
Hence the name of that day. We refer to it as “Shavuos,” meaning weeks, because we counted for seven weeks, and each day we perfected another of the attributes necessary for acquiring Torah. Thus, at the end of the seven weeks, we offer the kohein a korban of wheat, which is human food, because we have fulfilled the destiny for which man was created and earned the Torah.
When you look at a cake recipe, you see a list of ingredients, but from reading the list, you cannot figure out how to bake the cake. You have to read the amounts that are required of each ingredient and the instructions of how to mix them.
Usually, a recipe also tells you how long the process takes. There are no shortcuts. If you leave something out, or mix ingredients in the wrong order, or rush the baking process, your cake will be a flop. If you want a cake that you will be able to enjoy, you have to put in the extra effort to follow instructions and properly execute every step. After having done so, you will able to remove your finished product from the oven and enjoy it.
The korban we bring at the outset of the count has no biblical name. Rather, it is referred to by the measurement of barley it consists of, namely an omer. The period of counting is not given a name, nor is the Yom Tov that celebrates the end of the count, because the entire period is about counting and about measurements, omer and shavuos.
It’s about measuring up. It’s a progression. Raw materials that have yet to be defined are mixed and purified to perfection. Ingredients take shape and become a product.
In order to acquire the Torah and reach the level of perfection that Hashem intended for us, we have to be exacting in the counting and measuring. There are no shortcuts. There must be an omer and there must be seven weeks of daily steps. Anything less invalidates the process.
We call the seven-week period following Pesach “Sefiras Ha’omer” and we call the Yom Tov at the end of the count “Shavuos,” literally weeks, to signify that we used every day of that time to perfect our middos and measurements and make ourselves worthy of the Torah.
Some years back, an aged Russian woman arrived in Israel along with the millions of Jews who took advantage of the opening of the Iron Curtain to make their way to the Promised Land. A brilliant woman and former math professor, as she got acclimated to the new country, she began telling people that she was a granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim. A minor commotion was created in the media, and upon hearing about her, the religious grandchildren of the Chofetz Chaim began traveling to her to hear her memories of their holy grandfather.
The famed rosh yeshiva Rav Hillel Zaks, whose mother was the Chofetz Chaim’s daughter, went to see her and took along Rav Shimshon Pincus, who later recounted the conversation.
The secular woman recalled that as a young girl, she had read works of the Maskilim and, like many others of her time, was drawn by them and fell under their spell. Slowly, she gave up religion and told her parents that she was going to study in a university. They begged her to visit her grandfather, the Chofetz Chaim, prior to enrolling, thinking that perhaps it would save her.
This is how she repeated their conversation: “Zaide,” she told him, brimming with youthful enthusiasm, coming from the big, modern city of Warsaw, “you have to step out of your dark little shtetel and discover the bright new world. You’ll see that it’s a new era. Technology and science are creating a new reality. Zaide, you have to let go of your old-fashioned ideas and get with the times. Soak in the excitement and learn of the many possibilities that exist in today’s world.”
She recounted that the Chofetz Chaim told her, “Tochterel, I want you to know this: With their innovations and inventions, they will one day reach a point where they make a bomb that will kill thousands of people. Ubber mir machen mentchen. Mir machen mentchen. Do you hear? We are making people. We work to improve people. They will destroy people.”
Torah makes people, refining and raising humanity.
When Shavuos arrives, we achieve our freedom. Ein lecha ben chorin ela mi she’oseik baTorah. The ultimate freedom belongs to those who live according to the Torah. At Mattan Torah, we attained the pinnacle of our existence, having reached the plateau Hashem intended when He created the world, bishvil Yisroel shenikre’u reishis and bishvil haTorah shenikreis reishis, for the sake of the Torah and the sake of Yisroel, who, upon creation, were both referred to as “beginning.”
A beginning is a spark that contains potential and hope for the future. The creation of the world and the establishment of Klal Yisroel were just the start of a process. At Har Sinai, the potential was realized, when the children of the avos became the Bnei Yisroel. When we reenact the climb every year during this period, we achieve the level Hashem intended for us.
We can now understand the Tur’s comparison of the counting of the seven weeks to the counting of Shmittah and Yovel. That count leads to Yovel, the celebration of freedom, just as this one does.
When we think of Sefirah, we think of the simonei aveilus we follow in memory of Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students who perished during this period.
There is no better example of the process that demonstrates that through toil, ameilus and work man can remake himself. Rabi Akiva was the personification of man’s potential and ability to grow through Torah. People can raise themselves, no matter how humble their beginnings, and reach the highest level.
Rabi Akiva began his climb as a lowly shepherd. At his apex, he was the shoresh of Torah Shebaal Peh. Rabi Akiva demonstrated that man can begin from the level the Bnei Yisroel were on at Yetzias Mitzrayim. By working on improving himself step by step, Rabi Akiva was able to rise, level by level, until he reached the level of Kabbolas HaTorah.
If we understand the connection between Shmittah and these seven weeks, perhaps we would better appreciate our avodah during this period. We are taught that the punishment for failing to count the years of Shmittah and abstaining from working the fields during the years of Shmittah and Yovel is to be separated from the land.
The Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 84) writes that the purpose of Shmittah is to remember that Hashem created the land and causes it to grow and give forth fruit.
Similarly, if we wish to grow, develop and thrive, we need to “work the land” during this time to remember that Hashem created us, and the world, for a reason.
We need to use these days to improve ourselves and our middos, which are the foundation of Torah. We need to appreciate the gifts Hashem has given us and recognize the purpose for which we were created. That is our specific task during these seven weeks leading up to the day of Kabbolas HaTorah.
There are no secrets and no shortcuts. You have to measure up, Mishnah by Mishnah, daf by daf.
Rabi Akiva (Pesochim 49b) said about himself that when he was still an ignorant am haaretz, his hatred of a talmid chochom was such that “If I saw a talmid chochom, I wished to bite him like a donkey (which hurts more than a dog’s bite).”
Yet, just as water bores a hole in a rock through persistence and consistency, Torah penetrates the soul. Rabi Akiva became the paradigm of Torah study and was the link in transmitting Torah to 24,000 talmidim. Sadly, they were not able to maintain the 48 levels necessary for the acquisition of Torah, and since they failed in their mission, they were taken from this world.
We mourn them until today as a reminder to ourselves of the levels man can reach. We celebrate Rabi Akiva and his talmid, Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, and focus on the need to constantly measure up or, chas veshalom, lose the ability to be sustained in this world, which was created for Klal Yisroel and the Torah.
Just as a skilled farmer uses the dirt, the chaff, the sun and the shade to produce delicious fruit and nutritious grains, the Torah takes all of man’s various qualities and elevates them.
Man is complex. But life is a process. These weeks, we are given directions to refine ourselves and we are provided with an example: If an unlearned shepherd was able to master the levels of middos, reaching the zenith of creation and experiencing the cheirus of Yovel, then each and every one of us can do so as well.
We mourn the tragedy of those who grew in his shadow but could not be lights on their own and fell before the challenge of rising to the next level. In the fires of Lag Ba’omer, we see 24,000 lives consumed and their tremendous potential cut short, but we also see the fuel of rebirth, a bright light showing us the way.
With the strains of music playing in the background, we offer our tefillos that we merit counting each day, making each day count, using it as intended, to climb the ladder, rung by rung, to eternity.
In Parshas Emor, we are given snapshots of the most glorious days of the year. In it, we hear echoes of the shofar, the awe of Yom Kippur, and the soft fragrance of the esrog. We are reminded of Pesach, which, though it feels like it was long ago, was only four weeks in the rearview mirror.
We experience the joys, relive the holiness with which the special days infuse us, and are reminded once again of our exalted status and potential for greatness. Yomim Tovim grant us joy, infuse us with energy, and enable us to go about the mundane period until the next Yom Tov.
My dear friend, Mr. Julius Klugman, would go to Eretz Yisroel every Sukkos. One year, he asked Rav Elazar Menachem Man Shach how the Torah can command a person to be b’simcha on Sukkos. “Is there a button we can push to experience joy?” he asked.
“I don’t understand the question,” Rav Shach told him. “How can a person say the words ‘Atah vechartanu mikol ho’amim’ and not feel joyous?”
Examine the world. Appreciate the infinite genius in the workings of every organ of the human body. Glance at the animal kingdom and all the different animals and how each was formed to be able to live the life set out for it. Take a look at the world of insects, millions of tiny species, and their distinct lives. Look at the sea and the fishes of all sizes and ponder how they got there. See how each species was formed differently to be able to exist and flourish in its place in the vast sea. Take a leisurely stroll in a botanical garden and ponder the glory and beauty of the hundreds of grasses, trees and flowers and you will quickly conclude that there is no way that any of them came into being by themselves.
They were created and placed in this wonder world. They were fashioned in a way that each living thing can complete its life span productively on its level.
We, too, were created and placed here by the Creator with everything we need to grow and excel. The Creator gave us the Torah, our guide to living the best life possible, a life that is fulfilling, meaningful and happy. Everything is laid out for us. All we have to do is follow its recipes and instructions.
How can we be happy? How can we not be happy!