Sefirah Optimism from Reb Meilech

Last week, we explored what brought about the original Sefirah tragedy. This week, we will learn from Rav Avrohom Elimelech Biderman how to turn this time of year into a powerful spiritual engine generating kedusha, growth in ruchniyus and ahavas Yisroel.

A floral metaphor may be helpful to follow Reb Meilech’s path. The Dutch city of Leiden is currently marking the 350th anniversary of its favorite son, the artist Rembrandt van Rijn. The famed painter was known to often depict rabbonim and Orthodox Jews, so there may some artistic justice in borrowing the saga of his favorite flower, the tulip. The story goes that “tulips first arrived in the Netherlands in 1562. Mistaken for a Turkish onion, they were tasted, found underwhelming and dumped as rubbish, then rescued by someone who spotted flowers emerging from the rubbish heap in spring” (New York Times, Sunday Travel section, April 28, 2019, page 1). We sometimes see only onions in the Sefirah story, but digging a bit deeper, we discover incredible beauty, hope and sunshine if we look carefully. Of course, there is nothing wrong with drawing serious lessons from the deaths of such tzaddikim, with all the ramifications for our own actions. But in his Be’er Hachaim, Reb Meilech helps us find the bountiful treasure of Sefirah as well, from which can derive incredible chizuk and inspiration.

The popular maggid of Lelover descent points us to the amazing discovery of Rav Avrohom Simcha of Barnov (Orah Vesimcha) that Sefiras Ha’omer is the 307th mitzvah of the Torah, making it the exact middle mitzvah in the Torah. There are 306 mitzvos before it and 306 after it, rendering it the backbone and foundation upon which all the others are built. But why, indeed, Sefiras Ha’omer more than all the others?

He answers that this was both the mitzvah and the method that would help us purify ourselves, pull us out of the 49th level of tumah to which we had descended, and allow us to receive the Torah in the perfection and holiness that our Creator had intended. In fact, Reb Meilech records movingly how his father would rise to incredible heights of spiritual ecstasy while reciting the yehi ratzon after Sefirah. These words, which speak of our sanctification and purification just from counting the days, indicate the power of this seemingly simple act of reckoning. He suggests that this might be the reason why Rav Mendel Riminover would count (without a brocha) many times a day, since the very act of counting Sefirah elevates a person tremendously.

Besides the central position of Sefiras Ha’omer amongst the mitzvos, the Ramban (Vayikra 23:36) famously reveals that the days of Sefirah were originally meant to be one long Chol Hamoed between Pesach and Shavuos. Rav Nochom Dov of Sadigura explained that the days of Sefirah indeed resemble either Chol Hamoed or aveilus – mourning – in that there are prohibitions of haircuts and weddings. However, if we have been properly purified, these days are like Yom Tov. But if we have not been, then we are prohibited, because we are sadly in mourning.

The first rebbe of Gur, the Chiddushei Harim, declares in the name of the Arizal that all of the events of our lives depend upon these pivotal 49 days. Therefore, one would do well not to miss any of the amazing opportunities of this season to grow in kedusha and closeness to Hashem. The Chida states emphatically that this power of Sefirah flows directly from the original days when we left Mitzrayim and journeyed toward Sinai. Just as then we received a tremendous gift of spiritual levels from Hashem because we were yearning to grow and receive the Torah, so too, today, Sefirah can be for each of us a reservoir of kedusha, if we only thirst to partake of this spiritual well.

The first stage of this growth 3,300 years ago and in our time as well is that of going from beasts to human beings. The Maharsha (Rosh Hashanah 16b) points out that the Omer sacrifice was prepared from barley, which is an animal food, whereas the korban of Shavuos is the Shtei Halechem, which is derived from wheat, a food designated for human beings.

As we recently declared in the Haggadah, upon leaving Mitzrayim we were virtually empty of mitzvos and had to be granted the blood of bris milah and the Paschal blood just so that we would not be totally bereft of any commandments. However, with Mattan Torah, we were elevated to the performance of 613 mitzvos, catapulting us light years ahead of the animal world.

Man often seems no different than the beasts. Indeed, Shlomo Hamelech notes this demeaning similarity in a phrase that has joined the Yomim Noraim liturgy: “Umosar ha’adam min habeheimah ayin ki hakol havel – Man has no superiority over beast, for all is futile” (Koheles 3:19). The Chida explains that Shlomo is not claiming that there is no distinction between man and beast. Shlomo was making the prophetic prediction that there will come a Darwinian time when science and prevailing culture will reduce man to a pathetic offshoot of the beasts.

Nevertheless, the word ayin can be understood as an acronym for amirah, yediah, neshamah – speech, knowledge and the glorious human soul. It only appears as if man and beast are identical if we miss the crucial distinctions between us. We have the glorious power not only to emit sounds of pain or alarm, but to speak, write and communicate sublime words and songs about our Creator Himself. We also have access to incredible knowledge far beyond the world of the animals and, finally, our souls are hewn from heaven itself, not just a nefesh to allow the most basic of life’s necessities.

In fact, the rebbe of Izhbitz sees the physical differences between man and beast as indicative of our essential divergence. Animals generally do not carry their heads above the rest of their bodies. However, human beings stand up straight, so that ideally our minds and brains are in charge of the rest of our bodies. The transformation from barley to bread signified our return to the glory conferred upon us at our creation long ago. It is the Sefirah process that provides us with a protocol and process for the restoration of our former glory.

The Chiddushei Harim embedded this concept into the very essence of the mitzvah of Sefirah, which is, of course, counting the days from Pesach to Shavuos. He sees this count as essentially recording the amount of time we have distanced ourselves from our previous animalistic behavior and how much closer we are to that of a noble human being.

Reb Meilech follows up this positive approach with another concerning our being mesakein – rectifying – the sins of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim. Although we have no understanding of exactly what they did wrong, it is clear that if we are scrupulous in being kind and respectful to each other, our actions will go a long way toward correcting the sin of “not conducting ourselves with honor toward each other.”

The Bnei Yissoschor teaches that there are 32 words in the Torah from the beginning until the word “good” in the sentence “And Hashem saw the light that it was good.” This means that the 32nd word in the Torah is ki, which together with the word tov – meaning “good” – adds up to the 49 days of Sefirah (32 plus 17). The lesson is that the main way to prepare for Mattan Torah is to work on developing a lev tov, a good heart. With this, we can understand the Chasam Sofer’s exhortation at the beginning of Pirkei Avos. One of the enactments of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah was that we should deliberate and not rush to judgment. He asks why this decree is necessary for all of Klal Yisroel. Surely this rule is only for judges. The Chasam Sofer explains that we all tend to judge each other, if not in court, then surely in our hearts. However, one antidote to being improperly judgmental about others is to think very hard before judging any one at all and then, if one must, to do so favorably.

Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the rov of Yerushalayim, also utilized a gematria to teach this concept. We are enjoined give mishloach manos ish lerei’eihu, each person to his friend. The word ish – a man – equals 311, as does lerei’eihu, signifying that one is only a true human being if he thinks as much of his friend as he does of himself.

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz always reminded his talmidim that when Hashem declared that “it is not good for man to be alone,” Adam was in paradise, the angels were serving him, and he was basking in the effulgence of the Shechinah itself. And yet, “it was not good” for man to be alone and unable to be kind others. Such a life is not worth living. In fact, the word for life, chaim, itself is plural to indicate this tremendous lesson of existence that all of life is predicated upon the ability to act kindly and with consideration toward others. That is the lesson of Sefirah and, ultimately, that is indeed the purpose of life itself.