Making Sefirah Count, Especially This Year

Sefirah is a delicate time. On the one hand, it can be the single longest period of joy on the calendar. The Ramban (Parshas Emor) famously writes that this time of the year was meant to be like Chol Hamoed, since it is bookended by the two joyous Yomim Tovim of Pesach and Shavuos. On the other hand, for several millennia, Klal Yisroel has treated much of these seven weeks as an extended period of mourning and intense sadness. Undoubtedly, we all feel this dichotomy viscerally this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Our Shabbosos have almost been transformed into a kind of solitary confinement and our Sedorim and Pesach celebrations were muted and reduced. What should we now do during these paradoxical days of Sefirah ahead?

First of all, many rabbonim have spoken of our gaaguim vekisufim – our yearnings and longing – to return to our shuls and botei medrash. Even those who have formed minyanim improperly, going against the guidance of gedolei Yisrael, have undoubtedly done so out of a thirst for tefillah b’tzibbur and hearing a dovor shebikedusha.

Surely another aspect of this loss has been the dikduk chaveirim (Pirkei Avos 6:6) which we have all been missing without friends and even strangers with whom to interact.

Interestingly, Rav Elimelech Biderman (Be’er Chaim to Sefiras Ha’omer, page 72) sets forth one of the main aspects of this period as “the power of the tzibbur.” He quotes (footnote 67) a fascinating interpretation of the Chofetz Chaim, who teaches (Chofetz Chaim on Torah, page 108) a new explication of the brocha of borei nefashos. In it, we mention that Hashem has created “numerous living things with their deficiencies.” The great tzaddik explains that Hashem gave every one of His creations wonderful traits, but also things that they are missing. Some have wealth but require healing; others are lacking in intelligence, still others are terribly impoverished. However, each of us has the obligation and the ability lehachayos nefesh kol chai, to supplement and fill that which other people are lacking.

We, who have spent so long without friends and even close relatives, should now, during the period when Rabi Akiva’s talmidim somehow failed in this endeavor, to show our concern for others and to fulfill their losses. And they are surely many. Some have lost their parnassah, their basic livelihoods. Some have lost irreplaceable loved ones. Some, even if they have survived, must regain their health and strength. Each one of us must now step up to be mashlim these overwhelming losses.

To be sure, gigantic buildings of chesed have already been built. Countless people have risked their lives for others and this is an incredible zechus for us all. However, undoubtedly, in the weeks and months ahead there will be much more to be done and we will all have to shoulder the great task of lehachayos nefesh kol choy.

Yet, paradoxically, there is another seemingly opposite lesson. In my “Zoom” Shabbos Hagadol drasha, which fell on Parshas Tzav, I quoted an intriguing Be’er Mayim Chaim. When discussing the various bigdei kehunah, the holy vestments of the kohanim, the Torah twice refers to them as ba’ad (6:2-4). Rav Chaim of Tczernovich explains the word to mean hisbodedus, solitude or seclusion. He quotes the Arizal (as cited by such giants as the Shela Hakadosh and the Sefer Chareidim) in praise of the trait of spending some time alone. Many other gedolim, down through the ages, such as the Chovas Halevavos (Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh 3) and the Chasam Sofer (Otzros Sofer 11), have lauded the middah of hisbodedus.

However, Rav Uri, the “Seraf” of Sterelisk (quoted in Yagdil Torah, Vayikra, page 263) evokes a concept that should resonate deeply with all of us who have spent so many days in “splendid isolation.” He raises a powerful issue. We know that the Torah has 600,000 letters (Kiddushin 30a) and Klal Yisroel is composed of 600,000 thousand primary souls. Just as if a Sefer Torah is missing one letter it is not valid, so too, if Klal Yisroel is missing one soul, the Shechinah will not dwell amongst us. Why, then, he asks, is there a well-known halacha that a Sefer Torah may not have any two letters touching? If we are indeed an agudah achas, one entity, why can’t we touch?

His answer is eye-opening: “Although it is proper for us all to be interconnected, nevertheless, this should not be a constant condition. Every one of us requires time each day to be alone with our Maker.”

One level of understanding his amazing words is that here, too, there is a paradox associated with our national and individual character. While we are truly one as a nation, we must remember our individuality as well. We each have traits, capabilities and responsibilities that we alone represent. We must oscillate back and forth between these two opposites until we have achieved a happy medium between the two. Perhaps this is one of the lessons of these strange yet extremely powerful days we have living through. Our enforced near solitude will soon hopefully be at an end, but the lesson of hisbodedus taught by our holy leaders should remain with us. As the Arizal exhorts us, “once a week or at least once a month, we should sequester ourselves…connecting ourselves exclusively to our Creator” (Yagdil Torah, page 262). If we could emerge from this ordeal with the twin beautiful middos of love for each one of our brethren at the same time as we have gained a new sense of introspection, we will have gained a great deal, indeed.

Another aspect of the Sefirah period that connects directly to our coronavirus experience this year may be gleaned from Rav Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. He notes (Kedushas Levi, Parshas Emor) that although on Pesach we had many incredible revelations, they were all isarusa d’leila – divine gifts from above – with little or no involvement on our own. These are known by their Pesach term of dilug (from Shir Hashirim 2:8). This refers to the fact that Klal Yisroel was actually not yet prepared to leave Mitzrayim and go on to Mattan Torah, for we were still enmeshed in the 49th level of defilement. Hashem granted us the new madreigos we required with no effort of our own. However, once we voluntarily began to count Sefirah, we came to own these new levels, hence the term usefartem lochem. This means that counting the Omer added our isarusa d’lesata, our earthly yearning for growth, greatness and indeed Mattan Torah (see also Likkutei Torah, Pekudei 5:2 and Avodas Yisroel, second day of Pesach).

We, too, have been more than ever totally in Hashem’s Hands these past few weeks. We had little freedom of movement or choice of action. However, the acid test of what we have gained or not will be the days ahead. What did we gain from our days of solitude and enforced internalization? Have we improved in our attitudes toward tefillah b’tzibbur and krias haTorah or will it be business as usual? Do we realize the fragility of our existence and value each moment on earth or will we run about madly once again not thinking about the radical changes in our lives which can happen overnight? This is the lesson of Sefiras Ha’omer. Klal Yisroel was given spiritual gifts that were undeserved and for which we were woefully unprepared, but we turned them into permanent aspects of our national character, making Sefirah an eternal time of potential and spiritual greatness.

I would like to suggest that a certain story from almost eight decades ago might help serve as a metaphor for our post-Pesach situation this year. I had the honor to meet Rav Betzalel Zolty zt”l when he was the rov of Yerushalayim in the late 1970s. He still retained some of the fiery redness of his beard and all of the burning enthusiasm of every of every word of Torah that emerged from his eloquent soul. In 1942, a difficult year for Klal Yisroel, Rav Zolty’s wife had just given birth to their first child and his father-in-law, Reb Yerachmiel Wechsler’s own mother-in-law, wasn’t well, so he invited the young couple to spend Pesach with them in the Babad Hotel in the Machaneh Yehudah section of Yerushalayim. Mr. Babad, the proprietor, noticed that Rav Zolty was a young talmid chochom, so he made a request.

“There is a poor older couple here who have just arrived from Buchariah. The woman is quite ill and they even had to borrow money for her medications. They have not left their room and seem quite disoriented. Could you perhaps cheer them up a bit in honor of the Yom Tov?”

Rav Zolty immediately assented and knocked on their door.

“Yes, what can I do for you?” the elderly guest with the Bucharian yarmulka inquired.

“I just wanted to talk with you a bit,” Rav Zolty responded, “since we are neighbors here in the hotel.”

Rav Zolty decided to share a simple vort based upon a Rashi that would shed some joyous light upon the upcoming holiday. He finished the idea, unsure if his interlocutor even understood what he had just said.

“The Safra says differently,” the elderly man quietly responded,” quoting the extended text verbatim. Now it was Rav Zolty’s turn to look shocked, but he quickly composed himself, citing the relevant Gemara in Zevachim. And so the dialogue continued, soon encompassing entire sugyos and abstruse seforim and commentaries from much of the Torah.

Finally, Rav Zolti felt compelled to inquire respectfully, “Who is the rov?”

The answer came humbly but firmly, “I am the rov of Tchebin.”

After spending an elevating day with the gaon of Tchebin, Rav Zolty ran around to some of the nobles of Yerushalayim, Rav Yechezkel Sarna, Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, and the son of the Imrei Emes, Rav Simcha Bunim, the future Lev Simcha, to notify them of the secret and the treasure he had discovered. The Gerrer Rebbe’s children soon brought over appropriate Yom Tov clothing for the rov and rebbetzin, who were already feeling better from the reception they were receiving (see, also, Hayu Mesaprin 1:381 in somewhat different form).

We all have some aspects of hidden greatness inside of us. In different ways, our enforced hisbodedus, Pesach and Sefiras Ha’omer all have the power to bring this forth. It is up to us to fan the flames, reinforce the spiritual gains, and, most importantly, hold onto them and help them grow. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, always said at the end of a Yom Tov, “Do not say, ‘Es iz avekgegangen ah Yom Tov – The Yom Tov went away.’ Always say, ‘Es iz tzugekumen ah Yom Tov – We have permanently gained a Yom Tov.’”

Let us hope that we will have gained much from these trials and tribulations, so that we can go forward, having revealed the wonderful truth about who we really are.