Sefirah: Preparation and Anticipation

One is obligated to visit his rebbi on Yom Tov, so Rav Moshe Turk, a renowned marbitz Torah in Bnei Brak, paid a call to the Ponovezher mashgiach, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, on Erev Shvi’i Shel Pesach. He knocked on the door, but there was no answer, so he put his ear to the door and heard the sound of moving, heartfelt song, expressing thanks and longing for Hashem. He worked up the courage to open the door ever so slightly and now the singing was louder. Then he opened it a bit more and what he saw startled him. The heavy table was moved to the side, touching the seforim shrank. The chairs were arranged in two rows, their backs facing inwards, creating two walls. The elderly mashgiach ran back and forth between the two walls, his face turned upwards, eyes closed, and he was singing the shirah, Az Yoshir, with such deep emotion and a strong yearning, pouring out his soul to Hashem Yisborach.

Rav Moshe entered the room quietly and the door shut behind him. He was completely taken by this stirring scene. His eyes followed every step his rebbi took. Every single word was sung with emphasis and with longing, all the way until the last words, the fervent wish that “Hashem yimloch le’olam va’ed – Hashem should reign for all eternity!”

Then the mashgiach stopped and opened his eyes. He left the milieu where a maidservant saw what was not revealed to the greatest nevi’im, where little children pointed and said, “This is my G-d and I will build Him a sanctuary,” where all the Bnei Yisroel burst out into a song of nevuah resembling the shirah of the future days of redemption. It was as if he had returned from hundreds of miles away and thousands of years ago back to his modest home in Bnei Brak. He wasn’t surprised to see his visitor any more than seeing the furniture in his house.

Ah gutten moed,” he said to his talmid. In order to welcome his guest like one welcomes the Shechinah, the mashgiach started returning each piece of furniture to its proper place and his talmid hurried to help him. Now all was in place and Rav Chatzkel explained: “It is the eve of the last day of Pesach, the occasion of Krias Yam Suf. Six days ago, we left Mitzrayim and we experienced it through matzah and maror, with sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim and heseibah. At this moment, the Mitzriyim are chasing after us and we are trying to escape. To where? To the sea. A pillar of cloud separates us and our pursuers. In just a bit, night will fall and a pillar of fire will emerge before us to light up the way. A strong eastern wind will be blowing. We will soon reach the sea and it will split into twelve different columns. Then we will pass through it on dry land, and in the morning we will burst out in a song of thanks. We have to experience it. We have to feel it,” concluded the mashgiach.

It is no wonder that when Rav Chatzkel was niftar, Rav Shlomo Wolbe said about him, “With his demise, we have lost the last of the Yotzei Mitzrayim” (Haggadah Shel Pesach Mekarvan LaTorah, Rav Aharon Toisig).

We are far from the level of the mashgiach in being able to literally envision oneself standing at the banks of the Yam Suf. Such emunah bechush, being able to actually feel it, takes a lifetime of work. Not seeing that level, however, does not absolve us from seeing ourselves as if we went out of Mitzrayim. But why talk about this now, when Pesach is over? Because we are still in the process of geulah.

On the night of Pesach, we drink the four cups of wine, each one corresponding to a different stage of the geulah. “Vehotzeisi” represents the stoppage of hard labor with the beginning of the makkos. “Vehitzalti” means leaving the land of Mitzrayim. “Vego’alti” signifies Hashem saving us from the clutches of the Egyptians at Krias Yam Suf. But then comes the apex of redemption, “Velokachti,” at Maamad Har Sinai, the giving of the Torah on Shavuos (Seforno, Shemos 6:6-7). Hopefully, we have somewhat experienced the first three stages of geulah through the mitzvos of matzoh, maror, and sippur Yetzias Mitzrayim. But we are only at the beginning of the journey, for the main purpose of the first three steps was to experience Kabbolas HaTorah. And that took a lot of preparation. It involved hunger and thirst, a battle against Amaleik in the midbar, and total reliance on Hashem. Eating the monn and drinking from the well of Miriam also cleansed them to be able to accept the Torah.

While we don’t have a special Seder to experience those events in our day, we were given these precious days when we count the Omer to prepare ourselves for that great event. The problem is that aside from the mitzvah of counting each day, there is no other actual mitzvah to help us realize what these days are about. For many of us, the yemei ha’Omer are no more than asking your friend what last night’s Omer was, not listening to music in mourning the talmidim of Rabi Akiva, being happy on Lag Ba’omer that we can finally listen to music, and then looking forward to the latest dairy recipes for Shavuos.

About these days, the Torah says, “Usefartem lochem – And you shall count for yourselves… Seven weeks they shall be complete” (Vayikra 23:15). Why does the Torah say that we must count “for ourselves”? This would seem superfluous (see Menachos 65b). Hakesav Vehakabbolah says that this teaches us that the counting of these weeks should not be done merely to know the number of the day and week. Rather, it should be lochem, to yourselves, to internalize this day so that we change and improve ourselves in every facet of our lives. The lochem is similar to what Hashem told Avrohom Avinu: “Lech lecha… Go for your own sake” (Bereishis 12:1). This counting is for ourselves, to cleanse ourselves and become better Yidden.

There is a machlokes amongst the Rishonim if the mitzvah of counting the Omer nowadays is a mitzvah de’Oraysa or derabbonon. The Ran (on the Rif) at the end of Maseches Pesochim quotes a Medrash that says that it is derabbonon. “When Moshe Rabbeinu told the Yidden the words of Hashem, “When you take the people out of Mitzrayim, you will serve Hashem on this mountain” (Shemos 3:12), the Yidden asked him, “When will this service take place?” Moshe answered, “At the end of fifty days.” And every Jew counted each day. From here the chachomim established the mitzvah of counting the Omer even nowadays, when we don’t bring the Minchas Ha’omer on Pesach.

This is quite remarkable. Every single year, a Yid felt a longing to serve Hashem at Har Sinai, to the extent that without being commanded, every individual, by his own volition, counted the days towards Matan Torah in anticipation of that momentous occasion.

So there we have it, two aspects of these days of Sefirah: preparation and anticipation. But how do we prepare and how are we to anticipate if we don’t feel that natural longing for Shavuos?

Actually, the two points are intertwined. The more we prepare for something, the more we feel its importance. This is true with all matters, but especially so in matters of ruchniyus. Let’s go back to the Haggadah to appreciate this.

“What does the wise son say? What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you?” It seems from the question that this son is ignorant of any mitzvos. If so, why is he called a chochom? We find a similar query when it says in the Torah, “And I have endowed the heart of every wise-hearted person with wisdom” (Shemos 31:6). In what way was this person considered wise-hearted before he received his wisdom from Hashem? Similarly, it says, “He gives wisdom to the wise…” (Doniel 2:21). What was wise about the person before Hashem gave him wisdom?

One simple answer given is: “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of Hashem” (Tehillim 111:10). Even before one has attained knowledge of Torah, he can be ingrained with yiras Shomayim, which is a conduit for chochmas haTorah, because if one fears Hashem, he is interested in knowing what Hashem wants from him, so he will naturally be inquisitive about what Hashem requires of him.

Another answer given is that before a person has attained chochmah, he must first possess a heart that can be a vessel for the Torah. Just as land has to be cultivated before growing its crops, so too, the heart has to be prepared before it can absorb Torah. Since Torah is the word of Hashem and spiritual, it can only thrive in a heart that is not pampered with physical pleasures and is not occupied with thinking about worldly pursuits. One who is removed from these interests is called a chacham lev and has a natural inclination for wisdom. Such a person has special siyata diShmaya in receiving chochmah from Hashem. “He gives wisdom to the wise…” refers to those who are wise enough to know that the heart and the mind are sacred territories and their true value depends on what we implant in them.

Every yeshivaman knows that one of our greatest rabbeim in history was Rav Aryeh Leib Hakohein Shain, whose three master works, Ketzos Hachoshen, Avnei Miluim and Shev Shmaatsa are the fundamentals of lomdus in Seder Noshim and Nezikin. The Chazon Ish said about this giant of Torah, “It is clear to me that in order for Rav Aryeh Leib to have written the Ketzos, he could not possibly have had any taste for a piece of a kugel.” This must seem novel to our generation, when there is such an abundance of gashmiyus, but this is how the previous generations lived. They lived a life of pashtus, simplicity. And this was much more conducive for chochmah and kedusha.

Every day, when we say Birchos HaTorah, we beseech Hashem, “Veha’arev na… Please, Hashem, our G-d, sweeten the words of Your Torah in the mouth of Your people, the family of Yisroel.” The Skulener Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, asked why we must ask Hashem to sweeten the Torah for us, when it is naturally sweet and delicious. Does one need special help in enjoying a scoop of savory ice cream, which is naturally luscious? Why the need for this special tefillah for Torah?

The rebbe answered that ice cream is naturally sweet when our taste buds are in order. If one has just indulged in peppers, onions and garlic, and these flavors remain foremost in his mouth, he cannot really taste the sweetness of the most delicious ice cream. Similarly, our indulgence in the various tastes of olam hazeh compromise our spiritual taste buds and our ability to appreciate the true sweetness of Torah. Therefore, we daven to Hashem to give us special siyata diShmaya in overcoming this weakness and that we experience true enjoyment of Torah.

This is the attribute of the wise son. He has not yet learned the various mitzvos of the Torah, but he is already searching, probing and asking in a wise manner. What are the testimonies, the statutes, and the laws that Hashem, our G-d, has commanded you? He is already able to articulate and to categorize his thirst for the word of Hashem. This comes from a chacham lev, a heart ingrained with yiras Shomayim, and a heart where other interests that would distract his focus don’t exist. This is a heart that will absorb much chochmah and generate more chochmah.

The Chofetz Chaim was wont to say that our desire is to fulfill the Will of Hashem. Why, then, is it so difficult for us to accomplish this? Because we also have other desires that compete with the motivation to please Hashem. The more we curtail those other caprices, the easier it is to realize our true inner desire.

This is one of the facets of our avodah during these days, when we prepare for Matan Torah. On the first night of Pesach, we experienced geulah by eating matzah, a simple food, a symbol of pashtus and removal from gashmiyus. During these days, the Yidden in the midbar were isolated from any other society and removed from physicality in order to cultivate them to appreciate ruchniyus. “He afflicted you and let you hunger; then He fed you the monn” (Devorim 8:3). After removing us from gashmiyus, Hashem fed us the bread of angels, which purified us and primed us to be able to accept the Torah.

During these days, when we relive the geulah experience, we should also rethink our attachment to olam hazeh and how we can somewhat loosen it, for with less physicality, our minds are clearer and our hearts more focused on the Word of Hashem. If we can do this and our main emphasis is put on the desire to please Hashem, then our counting of the days of the Omer will be done with a real inner longing for the arrival of Matan Torah.