And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the Omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. (Vayikra 23:15).
Nestled amongst the many mitzvos of this week’s parsha is the Omer offering. This was a barley offering, brought on the second day of Pesach which allowed the consumption of chadash (new crop of grain). In addition to the offering, we are commanded to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos. We are to count, seven weeks, forty-nine days, and on the fiftieth day, we celebrate the Yom Tov of Shavuos. This count creates a bridge between Pesach and Shavuos and we are reminded that our emancipation was to enable us to self-actualize through the acceptance of the Torah.
There is an interesting halachik debate as to how to view the mitzvah of counting the days of the Omer. Do we look at this count as forty-nine independent mitzvos? Or is it one long mitzvah comprised of forty-nine parts? The nafka mina (practical difference) is quite significant. What should one do if one missed a day of the count? If you accept the view that each day is an independent mitzvah, then missing one day does not preclude you from continuing forward. However, if you accept the premise that it is one long mitzvah then missing one day would preclude you from continuing on. Halacha L’Maaseh (practically speaking) we accept a hybrid approach. If one misses a day, one must continue to count, albeit without a beracha (blessing).
This approach resonates with life importance as well. How do we look at time? Do we look at time as incremental, individual days or as a continuum? Or to perhaps say it a little differently, how do we gauge a successful life? Is a successful life measured in terms of how one has spent their weeks, months, and years, or is it measured in how we use our days? Of course, the answer is both. To live a meaningful and therefore, successful life, we must develop intermediate and long-term goals. What do we want to accomplish? Who do we want to become? Where do we want to end up? After we identify these goals, we must make a plan to get there. But the thing about long-term goals is that – they are long term. I do not always see movement and momentum with them every day which is why we must also focus on how we use the day. Each and every day is filled with so much opportunity for growth, meaning, and fulfillment. Each day offers us the opportunity to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others. What do we each do with the gift of today? How can I take the hours that have been granted to me and make them into something special? This is the dual message of Sefiras HaOmer. Count seven weeks, but at the same time, count forty-nine days. Make a long-term plan but also find the strength to maximize the day.
“And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord (Vayikra 23:15-16).”
God commands us to count the days from Pesach until Shavuos. Why the need to count? The commentaries provide many layers of insight. Yet, on the most basic level, God was teaching us an important lesson; the exodus was not an ends; it was a means towards establishing a life of holiness and meaning. We left Egypt in order to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Torah, with its plethora of commandments and life lessons, provides us the ability to find the holiness within ourselves and our world. As such, God commanded us to count these days in order to link the events of Pesach and Shavuos, in order to establish a connection between our freedom and Sinaitic revelation. God tells us, “I took you out of Egypt so you could receive the Torah. I gave you the Torah so you can change yourselves and the world.”
This past Thursday night and Friday, we celebrated the 33rd day of the Omer, a day we simply refer to as, Lag Ba’omer. The Shulchan Aruch in reference to this day says, “U’marbim bo k’tzas simcha, we enhance the day with a bit more joy.” Why is this day unique? And if it is indeed special, why only “k’tzas simcha, a bit more joy”?
The Talmud (Yevamos 62b) tells us that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students, and they all died, “al shelo nahagu kavod zeh la’zeh, for they did not give proper honor one to the other.” The Talmud goes on to explain that these deaths occurred between Pesach and Shavuos, and according to many, the deaths ceased on the 33rd day of the Omer. But the question is obvious, why celebrate the cessation of the plague? We celebrate events and occurrences which are truly joyous because of their positive, dynamic momentum. The plague stopped because all of the students had died; there was no one left. I understand that we can stop our mourning practices on Lag Ba’omer, but to celebrate (even just a little bit) seems out of place.
The Pri Chadash (Rav Chizkiya Silva, 1659-1698) explains this dynamic by examining the end of the previously quoted passage:
“… the (Torah) world was desolate (as a result of the death of the 24,000 students) until Rabbi Akiva went to the Rabbis of the south (of Israel) and began to teach them. Who were they? Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamuah. These new students re-established the world of Torah in this turbulent time (Yevamos 62b).”
When did Rabbi Akiva go and find these new students? Right after he attended the funeral of the final student who had passed away. My dear friends, let’s take a moment to reflect on these powerful words. In the span of just a few weeks, Rabbi Akiva had to bury 24,000 students. But the tragedy didn’t end there. He cared for their widows and orphans; he was tasked with the overwhelming responsibility of helping tens of thousands to rebuild their lives. And what of his personal loss? Rabbi Akiva devoted his life to building his students and his yeshiva. His entire life’s work was intertwined with the lives of his students, and now it was all gone. No students, no yeshiva, and immeasurable amounts of pain and heartbreak. Rabbi Akiva would have been within his right to say, “I’m done. I tried, I devoted my life to my people and to my God, but alas my efforts were not meant to endure. I am an old man; someone else will need to find the strength and courage to rebuild. I did my share.” And who would have faulted Rabbi Akiva had he chosen to “retire,” learn in his local Beis Midrash, spend time with his family, and leave the work for others? But he didn’t. Rather, immediately following the last funeral, he dried his tears, dusted himself off, said goodbye to his family, and began the journey to the south of Israel to find new students and begin the process of rebuilding. And when did all of this happen? On Lag Ba’omer. This day, Lag Ba’omer is not simply another day in the sefirah count. This day is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. It is this day that reminds us that we can all be a Rabbi Akiva. It is on Lag Ba’omer that we understand that although we may be faced with incredible challenges, we need not yield to or buckle beneath them. Sometimes, we need to dry our tears, pick ourselves up, and figure out how to keep moving forward.
This is the meaning of the Shulchan Aruch’s statement, “U’marbim bo k’tzas simcha, we enhance the day with a bit more joy.” Lag Ba’omer does not possess the almost childish joy of Purim, nor does it possess the reverential happiness of our Yomim Tovim. Lag Ba’omer is the day on which we confront our challenges and recognize that for many of us, life is filled with much adversity and difficulty. Yet it is on this sacred day that we pledge to be like our ancestor, Rabbi Akiva, and find a way to regroup and rebuild. This is the little bit of simcha of Lag Ba’omer. Perhaps, our responsibility is to take this simcha with us into the remaining days of Sefira. We celebrated our freedom on Pesach. Pesach was a new beginning, an opportunity to start fresh and begin to actualize our goals and dreams. Truthfully, over the last few weeks, I may have fallen short. The taste of Matzah is long gone and perhaps, the inspiration from the beautiful Yom Tov has begun to fade. I have gone back to “business as usual.” Lag Ba’omer reminds us that we can always start again. The verse in this week’s Parsha, U’sfartem Lachem, reminds us that we can make each and every day count, and we can begin anew whenever we desire. May the courage of Rabbi Akiva and the holy words of Parshas Emor inspire us to do more, be more, and when necessary, start again. (Originally published 5778)
This week’s virtual drasha sponsors:
The Engelsberg Family l’iluy nishmas Yitzchak Dovid ben Meir Aryeh z’l, husband of Mrs. Miriam Engelsberg, father of Mrs. Edit (Yitzchok) Dinovitzer, Rabbi Shaul (Feige) Engelsberg, and Mrs. Shifra (Dovid) Steinberg.
From the time we are young children we count down to exciting life events. We count the days until a birthday and the end of school. As we get older, we continue to count down. We count the days until graduation, a wedding, a much-needed vacation or other life milestones. In this week’s Parsha, God commanded us to count the days from Pesach leading up to Shavuos, when we would receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.
“And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day, from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord.” (Vayikra 23:15-16)
But why the need to count? How does counting imbue these days with any additional holiness? On a basic level, we are taught that our exodus was not an ends; it was a means to receive the Torah. We were not taken out of Egypt simply to be free and without a human master. We were emancipated because we had (and have) something to contribute. Our nation has the ability to be a light unto the nations. But in order for the light to burn and illuminate – there must be fuel. The Torah is our fuel, the commandments the oil for our national wick, allowing us to burn bright and dispel the darkness. We count the days from Pesach to Shavuos to remind ourselves that our freedom must be used for spiritual accomplishment. We count the days of Omer to remind ourselves of our national mandate to make this world a better place.
There is something very interesting about the verbiage used in the verse quoted above. The Torah does not simply tell us “to count,” rather, God instructs us, “And you shall count for yourselves- u’sfartem lachem.” What is the meaning of this phrase “lachem (for you)?”
It is intriguing that a number of our initial commandments and mitzvos share a common theme – time. The first national mitzvah was Kiddush HaChodesh (sanctification of the new moon). God told Moshe, “HaChodesh HaZeh lachem Rosh Chodashim (this month is for you the first of all months).” (Shemos 12:2) Again, we see this same word “lachem(for you).” Two of our initial commandments – both focused on time. Perhaps, God was trying to convey to us an all-important lesson for meaningful living. Kiddush HaChodesh (sanctification of the new month) reminds us that we control our months and Sefiras HaOmer (the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuos) reminds us that we control our days and our weeks. We control our time.
Time humbles all men. Influence, power and connections can get you many things. But the one thing that no amount of “protexia” can procure and acquire for you – is time. Time is a finite, non-renewable resource. No matter how much you yearn for more – you simply can’t create it. Although we can’t generate additional quantities of time – we can most definitely control the time we have been given. Time is the greatest treasure God bestowed upon us as a free nation. It is the currency of accomplishment and self-advancement. Without it, you cannot do anything, go anywhere; with it, the sky is the limit. People often say, “if only I had more time – there are so many things I would like to do.” These mitzvos remind us that we have complete autonomy over how we use our time. It is true – there may not be enough time to accomplish everything you want to accomplish – so choose carefully. Decide what is important and focus your energies. We are limited in the duration of our time in this world but have sole discretion as to how to use the time we are given. Time is the start-up capital for our greatest initiative – life. Invest it wisely.
Perhaps, this is why the Torah uses the word “lachem (for you)” by both of the aforementioned commandments. God is not simply telling us to count. He is instructing us to “make it count for ourselves.” The month is yours – decide what you are going to accomplish. The week is yours – decide what needs to get done. The day is yours – contemplate how to maximize and squeeze precious meaning and productivity from every holy moment.
Not a week goes by without a new “time saving device” being introduced in the technological marketplace. We are constantly connected, wired and plugged in. Ostensibly the goal of our devices is to maximize productivity and “save time.” But have we really saved any time? And even if we have, how do we use this newfound time-windfall? The reality is that for many of us the time saved is just used for more work. The additional time has not gone to our family, to our learning or to acts of chessed; it has gone to more emails, more meetings and more deals. For others, this additional time has led to more time spent online wandering the internet, posting every last bit of information (much of it too personal for public consumption) on Twitter or Facebook, or chas v’shalom losing one’s self in inappropriate sites and material. As William Penn wrote, “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” Our time on this earth belongs to each of us. My hours and minutes belong to me and it is up to me to use them purposefully.
As we count the days until Shavuos, let us find the courage and strength to maximize our time and take advantage of each moment.
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur.
“No non kohen may eat holy things; a kohen’s resident and his hireling may not eat holy things. And if a kohen acquires a person, an acquisition through his money, he may eat of it, and those born in his house they may eat of his food.” (Vayikra 22:10-11)
The Kohanim led lives devoted to serving the Jewish people. They were our emissaries in the Temple and served as spiritual role-models for the nation of Israel. We were charged with supporting them through different types of tithes and portions which were then sanctified and could not be consumed by a non-Kohen. With some significant exceptions. If a Kohen purchased a servant, the servant was permitted to eat of the same sacred items of which the Kohen master partook. The servant, having become a member of the household, assumed the same rights as the members of the immediate family. If we take a moment to reflect on this reality we see how truly amazing it is. A regular Yisroel (non-Kohen) was precluded from partaking of sacrificial or sanctified items, yet the gentile who becomes the servant of the Kohen was permitted. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) explains this dynamic with a profound insight. We often think of servitude in negative terms. We think of it as one person subjugating another. Servitude, the lack of complete personal autonomy is viewed as a disservice and abuse of the other. Yet, according to the above-mentioned verse, when the individual is free he may not partake of the Kohanic portion, yetwhen becomes a servant to the Kohen, he is permitted. At times, giving yourself over to something greater than yourself, frees you from you own limitations. There is elevation through servitude.
“For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants, whom I took out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.” (Vayikra 25:55).
God calls us many names, the children of Israel, my son, my firstborn, yet the term used most often throughout the Torah is “servant.”
When the Torah eulogizes Moshe, it says:
“And Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of the Lord.” (Devorim 35:55)
The great leader is not referred to as a prophet or a teacher, he is simply called a servant, an eved. When we find the strength to give ourselves over to God, we transcend our limitations. As individuals, our reach, ability and capacity are all limited. But when we become servants to the Infinite, all becomes possible. When a man becomes a servant to the Kohen, he gets to partake of the holy Kohanic diet; when we become servants to God, we discover the divinity within.
Often there is a discomfort with describing oneself as a “servant” of God. It sounds like I am signing away my autonomy and freedom. The servant described in the verse may or may not have the right to choose his destiny, but we do. If we become servants of God, it is because we choose to do so. We choose to cast our lots with our Father because we believe that when we connect ourselves to Him, we can discover our own personal greatness. When we connect ourselves to Him, we transcend our myopic personalistic and world view. We spend much time running from servitude, instead of embracing it. True freedom is the ability and opportunity to become the best version of ourselves. This can only occur when we tap into the resources which God provides. But like the servant who can only eat at the table of his master if he pledges himself to the services of the master, we can only grow, find our greatness and discover our limitless holiness if we become true servants to our Master Father. Servitude to God doesn’t stymie our individuality or autonomy. In fact, it is quite the opposite, only the servant is truly free. Only the servants have the ability and tools to become the best version of themselves.