Why do we count time? What is the meaning of counting our days? What, if any, is a Jewish Philosophy of time? Two renowned writers and scholars shared their thoughts on this topic – Rabbi Joseph B. Soltoveitchik and Rabbi Jonanthon Sacks. The following are some of their ideas to help us gain a deeper understanding of the Omer. First, Rabbi Soloveitchik. In the published Festival of Freedom the very last essay is entitled “Counting Time.” Rabbi Soloveitchik, in his inimitable fashion develops a dialect in his approach to time – that of youth and old age. A young person anticipates what will be and experiences time with great rapidity. He quotes a midrash that says, “At the Red Sea they beheld God as a young warrior, and at Sinai as a gray-beard who teaches children.” Time, for the Rav, is a “merger of past and future, of recollection and anticipation.” This is symbolized by counting. When we count a day of the Omer it only has meaning as part of a continuum. When we say that this is day 14 which is two weeks, this has significance only because of the prior 13 and coming 35 days. Rabbi Sacks, in his hagaddah, has some beautiful opening essays. Two of these essays deal with time – “The Omer and the Politics of Torah” & “Time as a Narrative of Hope.” Here Rabbi Sacks develops the radical change that the Bible offered to our understanding of time. All ancient religions saw God as part of nature. For the Bible, God is part of history. Not only is there a Creator God of Genesis, but also a Redeeming God of Exodus. God cares what goes on in this world. This concept of time is referred to by Lord Sacks as “covenantal time.” That it is our job to imagine a future that is different, and better than the past or present. This is symbolized by the overthrow of the great and mighty Egyptian empire, which, by all rights, should have been theirs forever. Then came God and the Jewish People and we taught them that no empire can last
forever. “The overthrowing of this structure and the unprecedented release of a whole nation from slavery showed that societies are not immutable…Injustice,
oppression, dominance, exploitation, the enslavement of the weak by the strong, are not written into the constitution of the universe…”
These two concepts of time – as juncture of past and future and covenental or
redemptive – provide a framework in which the counting on the days of the omer are given new meaning.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
The concept of Sefirat ha’Omer is generally described in terms of a bridge that connects the physical freedom from Egypt with our spiritual freedom (‘there is no free man other than the one who studies Torah’). Based on the verse in Emor (23:15), which opens the Parshah of Sefirat ha’Omer with the words “And you shall count for yourselves the day after the Sabbath”, our Tzedokim always began counting the Omer on a Sunday. The Chachamim had a difficult time eliminating this fallacy, and on the day that they finally proved the Tzedokim wrong, they declared an annual celebration. One of the
arguments that won the day was the fact that, if, “the day after Shabbos” is to be taken literally as the Tzedokim explained, then the Torah would not be giving any indication as to which Sunday of the year (or even of the Pesach season) the
counting was to begin. Consequently, they concluded, bearing in mind that the Torah sometimes refers to Yom-Tov as ‘Shabbaton’, “the day after Shabbat” must be referring to the day after Yom-Tov (i.e. the day after the first day of Pesach, which is what the Torah is talking about at that point). The question arises however, that if the Torah is really referring to Yom-Tov, why does it call it “Shabbat”, and not ‘Yom-Tov’, or ‘Mo’ed’?
The B’nei Yisoschor explains: To answer this question, we first need to understand the basic difference between Shabbat and Yom-Tov. We need to understand that whereas the essence of Shabbat is what is known as ‘it’arusa di’le’Eila’ (an arousing that descends from above), the essence of Yom-Tov is ‘it’arusa di’letata’ (one that ascends from below). The
sanctity of Shabbat was declared at the Creation, from which time on, every seventh day has been holy. This means that the institution of Shabbat was fixed by Hashem at its inception, and man has no authority to change it. Yom-Tov on the other hand, is determined by Rosh Chodesh, which in turn, is fixed by a Beit-din. And this basic distinction reflects the twin concepts of ‘it’arusa di’le’Eila’ and ‘it’arusa di’letata’ that distinguish between the two. In other words, whereas Yom-Tov was an expression of Israel’s development, a hallmark of achievement in its early nationhood, resulting in a sanctity that was sparked off by Israel, the sanctity of Shabbat was a gift from Hashem, unrelated to their deeds or their level. Indeed, Chazal, in describing God’s donation of the Shabbat to Israel, write ‘I have a wonderful gift in My treasury … ‘Israel received Shabbat, but created Yom-Tov. ( The exception to this rule is Pesach, which Hashem granted us despite our unworthiness, as Rashi writes in Parshas Bo (12:6) – ‘The time arrived to fulfill the oath that I swore to Abraham to redeem his children. But they had no mitzvot with which to busy themselves…. So He gave them two mitzvot … ‘It was Hashem who offered us the opportunity to earn the redemption, rather than we who made the initial effort to deserve it.
What is the purpose of the Mitzva of Sefirat Haomer? Rabbi Joel Grossman comments that the Sefer Hachinuch writes (Mitzva 306) that the Torah is the root of the Jewish people and it is because of the Torah that Hashem created the heaven and earth. The reason Hashem took us out of Egypt was in order for us to accept the Torah at Mount Sinai and fulfill the Torah. Therefore just as we count to any great day in our lives, so too, we count to the receiving of the Torah – Kabbalat Hatorah. The Sefer Hachinuch asks why do we count how many days have passed instead of how many days remain? He answers that by saying that there are still forty-nine days left until Kabbalat Hatorah will show that there is still a long time left before Kabbalat Hatorah and we do not want to do that. He asks, “After the midway point why don’t we switch to how many days are left until Kabbalat Hatorah?” He answers, “When the Chachamim made a format for blessings they do not change it midstream.” Rav Moshe Feinstein notes an interesting observation about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot. He asks, “Why by every other holiday does the Torah give the exact month and day?” He answers, “If the Torah gave an exact date people might think that we only have to accept the Torah on that date. Since the Torah does not record a date we realize that we must strive to accept the Torah anew every day of the year.”
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
After learning how humans become contaminated , the laws of “tumah”, this week we learn how a contaminated person attains the purified state. When it becomes apparent the contamination has subsided, the individual was once again examined by the Kohen, who determined if the recovery has been completed. What then ensued were cleansing ceremonies which took place over an eight day period. The Kohen offered sacrifices, and the former “Metzorah” was reinstated as a member of the Community.
In the fifth verse that we read this morning, it states “and the priest shall command to kill one of the birds in an earthen vessel” and it continues, “over running water”, mayim chayim. We have read of many immersions, why does the Torah specifically mention, in this case, that running water is required? Mayim Chayim, running water, is literally translated as “living water”.
The leper had, for obvious reasons, a very low opinion of himself, shunned and ostracized in his community. There was a very real fear that he might become despondent, and very possibly take his own life. It is for this reason that “living water” was required to refresh and revive him.
“Sichot Tzaddikim” states that he could only be refreshed, strengthed, and revived by the water of knowledge from the wellsprings of the Torah, which is called “living water”.
The laws of Tza’raat apply equally to clothes and garments. A garment may be burnt, and a house boarded up for seven days if they display signs of this contamination. If the signs of Tza’raat remain on the walls of the house, the whole building must be demolished. The parshah also deals with the fact that those men and women who are ritually impure , for whatever reason, are forbidden to enter the Sanctuary, or touch sacred articles. The impure state can only end with the purification ceremony.
One might ask, why must an individual go to the Kohen to determine his/her condition when they find white spots on their skin. The answer lies with the fact that people are NOT the best objective judge of their own character. Therefore, one might consider the few white spots as insignificant, and ignore the fact that they are afflicted. The Kohen, on the other hand, with his training and experience, can clearly see that they are signs of Tza’raat. We therefore learn the lesson that before one can properly judge himself/herself, they should solicit an unbiased opinion from others.
As the holiday of Pesach draws near, I would like to wish everyone a Chag Kasher Vesameach, and a good Yom Tov!
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
After Aharon’s two sons died the normal sacrifices were brought. The Kohanim were instructed to eat parts of these sacrifices and Moshe asked Aharon why he had not eaten them. Aharon replied that he was an Onen (in mourning for his sons) and the law prohibits a person in this state to eat of sacrifices.
The Torah says: VAYISHMA MOSHE VAYITAV BE’ENAV, “Moshe heard and it was pleasing in his eyes.” (Lev. 10,20) Is it not strange that Moshe did not know the law and had to hear it from Aharon? Did not Moshe receive all the laws and teach it to Aharon? Rashi explains that Moshe was not embarrassed to admit that he had not heard this law. The Sifte Chachamim explains that he was not embarrassed to say he heard it but forgot it. Rabbi Menachem Saab comments: “Moshe who always taught others learned from Aharon and was not uncomfortable this time to learn from others. This is a great principle we must remember and attempt to imitate. We must be willing and ready to learn from others. If Moshe was not hesitant to learn, we certainly should not be ashamed to learn. This is what Chazal meant when they said, “Who is wise, he who learns from all men.” Avot 4;1
“Aharon raised his hands toward the people and blessed them.” (9:22)
One of the most awe-inspiring experiences is the Birkat HaKohanim, when a thousand-or-so kohanim bless the many thousands at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on the second day of Chol HaMo’ed Pesach and Succot. Most of the time, prayer at the Wall is a segmented affair. This group starts as this one finishes, while yet another group is somewhere in the middle.
The haunting chant of the Kohanic blessing evokes deep and powerful feelings in the heart of every Jew however religious he may be. It is a chant that echoes down the years. It is a living witness to the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition that links us to Sinai. The first appearance of that chant is in this week’s Torah portion. Aharon completed his first day of service in the Sanctuary and he then blessed the people with great joy. Such was his desire to bless the people that G-d rewarded him and his descendents that they should bless the Jewish People thus throughout the generations. The word for blessing in Hebrew, beracha, is connected to bereicha, which means a “pool.” Blessing is an overflowing pool that enriches and fills our lives. In the time of the HolyTemple, when the kohanim would bless the people, they would raise their hands over their heads and make a space between the third and fourth fingers of hands. When they recited the blessing using the ineffable Name of G-d, the Shechina, the Divine Presence, would rest on their hands. The kohanim to this day still cover their heads and hands with their prayer shawls when they recite the blessing. But maybe we could also understand a different symbolism behind the covering of the hands of the kohen. Our Sages teach us that blessing only descends on things that are hidden from the eye, that which the eye doesn’t see. For example, a farmer who starts to weigh his grain may pray that his crop will be large, but if he has already weighed it, he may no longer make such a request, for the size of the crop is already revealed to the eye. When the kohanim cover their hands they symbolize this idea that blessing descends only on that which is hidden from the eye.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
This week’s parshah primarily deals with the different categories of sacrifices, who is to offer them up, and the laws surrounding each of these sacrifices. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in an article entitled “Steak and Sacrifices” discusses the meaning of sacrifices in ancient times and how our thought processes have evolved since then. He explains that being civilized, modern people, we are likely to shudder at the idea of slicing up animals to express our devotion to God. Of course, we see nothing wrong with a good steak for dinner, unless perhaps the cardiologist advises against it. But we leave the killing of animals to others and are not inclined to improve our children’s education or our own by visiting a slaughterhouse. Whole chapters in the Torah, however, are devoted to animal sacrifices; the portion of Tzav consists of little else. What are we to make of the instructions elaborating how the animal is to be slaughtered, who may eat of it, what disposition shall be made of the fat, and who shall keep the skin? What about the rule that the elders of the community will expiate an unwitting error made by the people through laying their hands on a bull and slaughtering it? The whole notion that the merciful Creator demands the killing of innocent creatures as a sign of human obeisance seems at first glance to be an obvious contradiction. Yet, Plaut explains, it would do well to look a little further. First, he explains, one should consider the times and circumstances to which this legislation addressed itself. The Israelites in the Promised Land were almost all farmers, and therefore had a special relationship to their animals and often would know them by name. They were not accustomed to a daily diet of meat, and in that respect were no different from the vast masses of humanity then or now. Animals were domesticated for sale or for their milk or wool they produced. They represented capital that one did not eat up lightly. Consuming meat was reserved for special occasions. Chief among these were visits to the nearest shrine, and later, to the central sanctuary in Jerusalem. These pilgrimages were acts of festive celebration, expressed as thanksgiving or expiation for sins committed, and marked major events in life. The pilgrim would take an animal along and slaughter it in the holy precincts. As an act of worship, sacrifice had two important side effects. For one, it served to lessen the guilt a farmer felt (and feels) when he killed a creature he had known from it’s birth. This guilt was attenuated when the killing was done to honor God and when the meal was shared with others. In balancing the desire to eat meat and the moral problem of killing animals, sacrificial ritual was an extension of the wider dietary laws. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Hacohen Kook, chief rabbi of Mandatory Palestine, once wrote that all the laws of kashrut are devised to remind us constantly that we are eating the flesh of one-living creatures. For that reason, for instance, we do not consume the blood from an animal, which in biblical tradition is considered “life itself.” Another side effect of bringing the offering in a holy environment was the deep impression the ritual was sure to make. This was not just killing for the sake of pleasurable feasting; it was done for God’s sake. One came closer to God through voluntary giving of one’s possessions, through sacrificing something. (The word “sacrifice” combines the Latin facere, “to make or render,” and sacer, “holy.” It is a translation of the Hebrew korban, “bringing close” to God.) And rabbi Plaut asks the following question: And what has become of us today? We buy “it” at the butcher’s or in the store, probably already cellophane-wrapped. Small children have no real inkling of where the meat came from. Any connection to the living creature is totally absent. These animals are thought to have been “harvested” in some mysterious way, which even adults would rather not know about. In contrast, our biblical ancestors never reduced animals to the status of “things.” Yet we tend to feel smugly superior to those ancient times. We do so with little reason.”
What do released prisoners, recovering patients, seafarers and caravan travelers all have in common? These people have all been in perilous situations, their very lives endangered, and having come through safely, they are required to express their gratitude to Hashem by bringing a thanksgiving sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem. The procedure for the thanksgiving offering, the korban todah, is described in this week’s portion.
The Midrash provides us with a rather surprising bit of information about the thanksgiving offering. In the End of Days, when the Presence of the Creator will fill the world with holiness and people will live in eternal bliss and serenity, all sacrifices will be discontinued – except for the thanksgiving sacrifice. This immediately leads us to ask: How can this be? If, as the prophets repeatedly assure us, people will be safe and secure, protected from all physical harm and danger, from sickness and imprisonment, how will it be possible for a thanksgiving sacrifice to be brought? The conditions that necessitate such an offering will simply not exist!
Rabbi Naftali Reich explains: ‘ We are endlessly beholden to Hashem for all the good He does for us, and as a result, we should be endlessly grateful. Unfortunately, however, we live in a benighted world of illusions and delusions, and we often fail to recognize the innumerable gifts and bounty that flow to us from Hashem’s generous hand. And even when we pay lip service to it, how deeply do we actually feel it? How real is it to us? The only things we face with stark reality are life-threatening situations. In the face of danger, our affectations and pretensions quickly dissipate, and we realize how dependent we are on our Creator for our safety. As the old adage goes, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” It is only when we are ultimately delivered from danger that we are capable of expressing genuine gratitude.
In the End of Days, however, the Presence of the Creator will illuminate the entire world and dispel all the foolish delusions which so becloud our vision and befuddle our minds. Then we will see Hashem’s hand with perfect clarity, and our acknowledgments of His guidance and benevolence will carry the ring of true conviction. At that point, we will no longer have to face life-threatening situation to inspire genuine gratitude in our hearts. We will thank Him endlessly for every minute detail of our lives and bring thanksgiving sacrifices to give expression to the transcendent feelings of gratitude that will permeate our souls…
In our own lives, we all too often take for granted all the blessings we enjoy, and we forget to express our gratitude to our Creator, the Source of all this bounty. Indeed, when we experience hardship, we are inclined to confront Hashem, saying, Oh, why do we deserve this? But when we experience good fortune, are we as inclined to thank Him? Common courtesy, of course, requires that we acknowledge Hashem’s bounty, but if we offer words of gratitude to Hashem in all situations, we will also discover a deeper dimension to our appreciation and enjoyment of the blessings of life.’
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim
This week’s parshah, which concludes the Book of Exodus, commences with the following statement: “ These are the accounts of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of Testimony, which had been rendered by Moses. The service of the Levites was under the authority of Ittamar, son of Aaron the Kohen” (Exodus 38:21). Commentators pose many questions, such as the following ones that the Alshekh, in his Torah Moshe, poses: 1) Why didn’t the Torah just say ‘which Moses rendered’, instead of saying ‘which had been rendered by Moses’? 2) Why is the word tabernacle repeated? 3) What does the service of the Levites, something that would take place in the future – have to do in the accounting for the quantity of materials used in building of the Tabernacle? 4) Why does the Torah have to repeat who Betzalel and Oholiov were? 5) Why do we need the expression for all the holy work in verse 24? Surely the words all the gold, is comprehensive enough. The Alshekh gives the following explanation: We are told in the Midrash that Moses recorded the quantities to preclude such accusations. The answer lies in the words, which had been accounted for at the command of Moses. Moses had initiated this accounting, not waiting to be asked to do so. Since all these items would be handled by the Levites in the future – to prevent anyone claiming that some material had disappeared while under the care of the Levites – the exact amounts were announced so that they could be checked in case someone would claim that an item had disappeared or been replaced with a similar item of lesser weight or value. Had the accounting not been done by a single person, Ittamar the priest, there would not even have been room to speculate that an item had disappeared. At that time two people were appointed to make a public accounting unnecessary, since two people could not be suspected of stealing from the temple treasury. It is clear from the text that there had been no suspicion against the ‘ossey hamelachah’ – those who performed the work – i.e. Betzalel and Oholiov, and that is why their names are mentioned again, since there were two of them. Moses, who had first access to all these contributions, instituted the accounting, since he was only a single individual and could have been subject to suspicion. With regard to repeating the word ‘Tabernacle’ in the opening sentence, the Alshekh explains that this may be a hint that although it would have been easy to explain away any shortfall between the weight of the finished product and the weight of the raw material contributions – this did not happen. The TOTAL weight of the Tabernacle is testimony that NOTHING was lost in the transition from raw material to finished product. Moses demonstrated this by counting and weighing prior to construction, and again at the completion of the work. What had been received i.e. asher pukad, was precisely what became subject to ‘avodat ha’leviim’ – the service that the Levites would later perform. The quantity of silver available, and the number of sockets of one talent each which were poured is a prime example that though normally there is always shrinkage when you melt down metal, in this case this did not occur. When you weighed the 100 sockets, their weight equaled the 100 talents which had been available for casting (Exodus 38:27).
In Chapter 29:32, the Torah tells us: “All the work of the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, was completed, and the Children of Israel had done everything that Hashem commanded Moses, so did they do.” Rabbi Chayyim Ben Attar discusses that the torah teaches that a person’s delegate is accounted as like the person who has delegated them. The Torah here credits all of the Israelites with having constructed the Holy Tabernacle although it was only Betzalel (and his helpers) who had actually performed all the work. While it is true that Betzalel had received his instructions from God and not from the Israelites, the fact that the Israelites had given their silent consent to Betzalel’s appointment meant that he acted as their delegate. It appears that the Torah is trying to teach us a general rule about how the way the Torah can be observed successfully by showing how the Israelites conferred merits one upon the other. The Torah is only capable of fulfillment by means of the entire Jewish nation. Every individual Jew is charged with the duty to perform those commandments that they are able to fulfill. This is the true meaning of Leviticus 19:18: “you shall love your fellow Jew as he is part of yourself.” Without the fellow Jew, no individual Jew would be able to function as a total Jew. Each Jew has a task to help another Jew to become a more fulfilled Jew by means of his fulfilling commandments, which the second Jew is unable to fulfill alone. As a result, the fellow Jew is not ‘acher’ – someone else, but is part of ‘kamocha’ – oneself. It is interesting to note, however, that we cannot fulfill all of the 613 commandments. The Or Hachayyim asks if we are to be at a permanent physical and spiritual disadvantage? He answers that clearly, Torah and its observance is not only a project for the individual but for the community. The Torah prove home this point by legislating laws which can be performed only by women, only be Levites, only by Priests, and in some instances, only by sinners, i.e. sinners who are anxious to rehabilitate themselves. Our verse teaches us this lesson. The reason that this was an appropriate time to teach us this lesson is that the 13 basic raw materials needed for the Tabernacle were as interdependent one upon the other as Jews are dependant upon each other in order to achieve the harmonious personality that God desires for each Jew to develop into by means of their good deeds. It makes perfect sense therefore, that the Torah considers every Jew as having contributed all 13 kinds of raw materials needed for the Tabernacle.
Prepared by Devorah Abenhaim