Thursday, May 30, 2024

Measuring Up

The roots of the Sefirah period can be found in this week's parsha of Emor, where we learn of the korban ha'omer and the mitzvah to count seven complete weeks from Pesach until Shavuos.

The posuk (23:10) states the obligation to bring “omer reishis ketzirchem el hakohein,” an omer amount of the first barley of the season, to the kohein. 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, when it is prohibited to do labor.

The Maharal in Tiferes Yisroel (25) discusses why the initial offering is of barley and on Shavuos it is of wheat.

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. Finally, there is no name given for the Yom Tov at the culmination of the count.

It’s remarkable that the Torah, whose every word is precise and direct, seems to shroud these korbanos in mystery.

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 too did they refrain from work at the time the counting is supposed to take place.

He cites, as well, a second reason for the custom: The talmidim of Rabi Akiva perished at shkiah time and were buried following shkiah. Since people did not work during that time, we desist as well.

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; at which the revelation of Hashem’s glory elevated and sanctified us. Thus, we bring a korban of barley, which is animal feed, because as we began the journey one day after leaving Mitzrayim, when we were still at a very low level.

Gilui Shechinah and Mattan Torah created people, human beings in their most elevated form.

We count 49 days, and on each day we raise ourselves one more rung from the low level we were at during Yetzias Mitzrayim. By the time we reach the culmination of the count, we are expected to have attained the level necessary for receiving the Torah, which was given to our people on the day the seven-week count concluded.

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 middos necessary for acquiring Torah. Thus, at the end of the seven weeks, we offer the kohein a korban of wheat, because we have fulfilled the destiny for which man was created and earned the Torah.

Step into a kitchen on Erev Shabbos as preparations for Shabbos are in full swing. You’ll see bowls and pots half-filled, bags of flour and sugar, and an open carton of eggs. You understand that you are witnessing the process, not a finished result. A recipe calls for precision, effort and toil. The finished product will justify the work.

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 festival 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 which 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 complete 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.

An aged Russian woman created a commotion upon her arrival in Israel, saying that she was a granddaughter of the Chofetz Chaim. Grandchildren of the Chofetz Chaim traveled to speak to her and hear what she remembered about the illustrious gaon and tzaddik.

The woman, who led a secular life, recalled that as a young girl, she had read the works of the Maskilim and, like many others of her time, was drawn by them and fascinated by the ideas they presented. Slowly, she gave up religion and made her way to a university. During that period, she went to visit her grandfather, the Chofetz Chaim.

“Zaide,” she told him, brimming with youthful enthusiasm, “you have to step out of your insular shtetel and discover the 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. They will destroy people.”

Torah makes people, refining and raising humanity.

As part of a series of well-intentioned efforts to familiarize secular Israelis with their chareidi counterparts, a group of military personnel, generals and officers went to see the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak to observe yeshiva bochurim in their natural habitat. The officers were given a tour of the yeshiva and then taken to greet the rosh yeshiva, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach.

The rosh yeshiva asked the visitors if they had been impressed by the young men they saw.

“Absolutely,” said one. “They are polite, studious and refined. They dress neatly and seem engaged in their studies. They are clearly invested in their friends’ academic success as well, studying as they do in groups. They are certainly impressive.”

The elderly rosh yeshiva, responding, cited the posuk which states, “Ki yeitzer leiv ho’odom ra mene’urav – Man’s heart is evil from the time of his creation” (Bereishis 8:21).

“Man is created with a yeitzer hora, a pull to do bad,” said Rav Shach. “The young men you saw today are like other young men you know, with the same inclinations and desires. So how come you know so many teenagers who are wild, lazy, angry or apathetic? Do you think that our students are made any differently? The difference is that the Torah they learn changes them. Torah is a force. It builds and rebuilds a person.”

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 shenikra 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 finally 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. He can begin from nothing 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 himself, Rabi Akiva was able to rise, level by level, until he reached the level of Kabbolas HaTorah.

If we understand the depth of the connection between Shmittah and these seven weeks, perhaps we can clarify 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 cut off 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.

When Rav Yitzchok Hutner arrived in Eretz Yisroel towards the end of his life, he came with a dream of building a new yeshiva like the one he headed in Brooklyn.

“Is it true that the rosh yeshiva wants to build Torah here as well?” he was asked.

“No,” he retorted. “It is not true. I don’t want to build Torah. I want to plant Torah.”

Building, Rav Hutner felt, connotes a static process, brick after brick. Planting is to be a partner with creation. Seeds become plants and develop buds, which bloom and flourish, producing fruit. Spreading Torah is an effort akin to planting.

Growth in Torah is hard work, but success is guaranteed for those who dedicate themselves to its pursuit.

Upon the passing of Rav Chaim Greineman, Rav Yaakov Edelstein reminisced of the time way back in 1944 when he, Rav Greineman and four others comprised the fledgling Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. Rav Chaim was then 18 years old. One of the other bochurim asked him as he was walking in the bais medrash if he would submit to a test on Shas. He said that they can ask him on everything except Maseches Eiruvin, because he had not reviewed it enough times.

Rav Edelstein conducted the test. He held up the bottoms of pages of different masechtos throughout Shas and Rav Chaim passed the test. The other bochurim were amazed. One remarked, “Wow! He has such a great memory!” Rav Greineman responded, “If you would learn and review each Gemara sixty times, you could also do that.”

As a young boy, Rav Greineman learned Mishnayos Shviis with his uncle, the Chazon Ish. This is how they learned: The Chazon Ish taught the boy the Mishnah very clearly and thoroughly in a way that he was able to understand. Then Chaim reviewed the Mishnah 100 times. When he finished, the Chazon Ish taught him a second Mishnah.

This is a story about a man who passed away just a few weeks ago. We can do it, too, if we would only apply ourselves and really want to accomplish this feat.

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 bite).”

Yet, just as water bores a hole in a rock through persistence and consistency, Torah permeates 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 lives consumed and 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, and using them as they were intended, to climb the ladder, rung by rung, to eternity.



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