Friday, May 20, 2022

The Climb

A certain sadness washes over many people when Yom Tov ends, and they find difficulty in returning to performing the various mundane activities that comprise our days. After weeks of preparation for the great chag and then eight days of bliss, joyfully performing mitzvos, enjoying the family, partaking of special meals, taking trips, visiting old friends and the like, it suddenly all comes to a crashing end. After drinking the eight kosos at the Sedorim and making Kiddush so many times, the most difficult cup to drink has to be the one we made Havdollah on at the conclusion of the glorious Yom Tov.

Perhaps the way to deal with the shock re-entry into the world is to seek to maintain a more spiritual level of life as we practiced over Yom Tov rather than quickly jettisoning everything and jumping headfirst into the rat race.

The Netziv, in his introduction to his peirush on Shir Hashirim, discusses the posuk (Devorim 16:8) which states an obligation to eat matzah for six days, followed by a seventh day, which is an atzeres when all work is forbidden: “Sheishes yomim tochal matzos uvayom hashvi’i atzeres laHashem Elokecha lo saaseh melocha.” He says that the last day of Pesach is to inculcate in us the achievements of the Yom Tov so that they remain after the chag has ended.

The Ramchal discusses in several places that matzah is analogous to good and to the yeitzer tov. Chometz is analogous to sin and to the yeitzer hora.

When Hashem redeemed the Jews from slavery on the 15th of Nissan, they were at the 49th level of depravity. Therefore, He extended His powers, so to speak, and caused a great Divine light to shine that evening, immediately removing them from Mitzrayim before they would sink further and be rendered beyond salvation.

Every year, those powers reappear at the time that they originally were apparent to save the Jews. In order to raise ourselves to the level where we can benefit from them, we partake of the matzah, which influences us letov and strengthens the yeitzer tov. Abstaining from bread and chometz, we weaken the power of the yeitzer hora. Coupled with the other mitzvos of the night that we perform, viewing ourselves as if we have been plucked from Mitzrayim, we can raise ourselves to the degree that we can benefit from the special hashpa’os that are manifest that first day of Yom Tov, and in golus the first two days.

After the boost that we receive on the first days of Yom Tov, the extra hashpa’os are removed and it is up to us to maintain the heights we reached. The Bnei Yisroel, at the time of their redemption, returned to the level of tumah they were on in Mitzrayim. The Medrash cites the malochim complaining at Kriyas Yam Suf, “Halalu ovdei avodah zorah vehalalu ovdei avodah zorah,” the Jews were disbelievers like their Mitzri pursuers.

This is why we were given the mitzvah of Sefiras Ha’omer, enabling us to return to where Klal Yisroel was at the time of the first day of Yom Tov. Each day, we are able to rectify another middah and climb another rung as we ascend to Shavuos. We are then able to achieve the associated tikkunim.

Sefirah is the bridge that transports us from Pesach to Shavuos. Pesach and the freedom it represents is not an end to itself, but the beginning of a longer journey. Hashem redeemed us from slavery in Mitzrayim so that we could go on to complete the reason we – and the world – were created. From there, He took us to Har Sinai and presented us with the Torah, the defining essence of our people.

Thus, we celebrate Pesach, relive the experience of deliverance and freedom, and count towards Shavuos to show that we understand why we were freed and what the essence of our life should be. Each day, as we count, we seek to improve, so that by the time of Matan Torah, we will be worthy of the gift.

Therefore, instead of a countdown of how many days remain towards the anticipated date, we count forward – “Today is day one, today is day two” – until we complete the count and reach Shavuos. Each day, we proclaim that we have rectified another facet of our behavior and raised ourselves another step, climbing towards the goal.

We recognize that to receive the Torah, we have to devote ourselves to the task of becoming better and more wholesome. Every day, we work on getting a little better, a little holier, a little less enamored by physical attractions, becoming drawn instead to things spiritual, real and eternal.

As we count Sefirah, we admit that we won’t get where we need to go if we are apathetic and lazy. We have to be energetic about our mission and recognize that success in life requires ambition, drive and hard work.

We take time each day to work on attaining a purity of character and clarity of thought necessary to function as bnei and bnos Torah. We acknowledge that scrolling through posts and flipping through glossy appeals to our lower forms do not aid us in the pursuit of what makes us better and happier people.

The mourning aspects of the Sefirah period have so taken over the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos that we can sometimes forget that there is more to Sefirah than refraining from weddings, haircuts and listening to music.

During Sefirah, we work to raise ourselves from the level of se’orim, which comprises the Korban Omer brought on Pesach, to the more refined chitim of the Shtei Halechem of Shavuos.

Chazal (Yoma 9b) teach that the second Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed because of sinas chinom. Simply explained, the people looked down upon each other out of baseless hatred. Perhaps we can say that until the period during which the talmidim of Rabi Akiva died because of a lack of respect for each other, there was hope that the Jews would be able to repent for the sins that caused the churban Bais Hamikdosh. However, when the terrible plague struck the Jewish people and the 24,000 talmidim died, it became obvious that the people were overcome with sinas chinom and were lacking in ahavas Yisroel and achdus.

They realized that there would be no quick solution to their golus under the Romans unless they would quickly repent for their sins. The fact that the mageifah took place during the days of Sefirah, when we are to be engaging in daily introspection and improvement, indicated that not only were the people not worthy of Torah, but they were also not worthy of the Bais Hamikdosh.

The same components that are necessary for kabbolas haTorah are necessary for geulah, so this special period of Sefirah was chosen as a time to improve ourselves and prepare not only for Torah, but also for geulah. By mourning the loss of the talmidim, we are reminded of the punishment for not loving each other and dealing with each other respectfully. We see what happens when there is sinas chinom and a lack of respect for each other.

At the time of the churban, the people excelled in the study and observance of Torah, mitzvos and chesed (see Yoma, ibid.). The only area in which they were lacking was ahavas Yisroel. That alone was enough to cause the destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh and bring on golus.

In our day, we note the explosion of Torah and frum communities. There is so much that we can point to with great pride. Yeshivos and Bais Yaakovs are more plentiful and larger than ever. We have every conceivable type of chesed organization. There is unprecedented dikduk b’mitzvos. Yet, the fact that we remain in golus indicates that we are lacking in ahavas Yisroel and achdus. If sinas chinom wasn’t prevalent among us, if there would be proper mutual respect, and if there wouldn’t be machlokes and division, golus would have ended.

During these days of Sefirah, it is incumbent upon us to work to end the hatred, spite, cynicism and second-guessing of each other and of people who look different or see things differently than we do.

The Sefas Emes was once given a large sum of money for safekeeping by a visiting chossid. The rebbe placed the money in a secure place, but the next morning, it was gone. The rebbe entered the bais medrash and announced that davening would not begin until the money was returned to its rightful owner.

No one came forward.

Time passed, but the mystery wasn’t solved. Finally, the rebbe went into his house, called over one of the attendants, and said, “Give back the money you took.”

The attendant broke down and admitted his misdeed.

“If the rebbe knew who had taken the money,” the gabbai asked, “why did we have to wait so long to confront him?”

An elder chossid explained that the rebbe knew who the culprit was; that wasn’t the hard part. The challenge for the rebbe was being able to look another Jew in the face and accuse him of being a thief. It took the rebbe hours to get to that point, after he had exhausted all opportunities for the man to save face.

Upon hearing the chossid’s explanation, the Sefas Emes confirmed what he had said.

During these days of Sefirah, as we seek improvement and mourn the passing of Rabi Akiva’s students, we have to bring ourselves to the level of love and care for others that it hurts us to embarrass other people, even when they may be deserving of punishment. We must always do what we can to help people protect their dignity, as they were created in the image of Hashem.

As our communities grow large, bli ayin hora, there is a tendency to take others for granted and not be mindful of their needs and feelings. In a small community, every person is precious and is needed to form a cohesive group, so, naturally, their feelings and concerns are more readily addressed. In a small town, every customer in the kosher grocery is appreciated, as they are needed for the proprietor to earn an income. In larger communities, where there are more customers and clientele to choose from, the owner must be cognizant not to become flippant with the needs and feelings of his Jewish customers.

And it is not only storekeepers. Everyone who comes into contact with other people during the course of the day must take note of this. If we want to realize the levels the Torah sets for us to achieve goodness, contentment and Torah itself, we have to show respect for all. If we want to attain the freedom our forefathers did at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim and merit the ultimate redemption, we have to not only achieve excellence in Torah and be more scrupulous in our conduct and observance, but also be more considerate and caring for all.

May we all merit to advance daily and acquire Torah and proper middos so that we merit the geulah sheleimah b’meheirah.

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