Saturday, March 30, 2013

Every Little Bit Counts

The entire concept of counting the Omer leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions. Firstly, if the Omer is meant to connect between Pesach and Shavuous – why begin counting in the middle of Pesach? Shouldn’t we count as soon as Pesach is over? Secondly, the Torah refers to the first day of Pesach (following which we begin the count) as Shabbos [see Vayikra 23:15] – why? Thirdly, we seem to be confronted with two mitzvos of counting – the weeks and the days [see Vayikra 23:15-16]. In fact, we do count both seven weeks and fifty (up to and not including) days. Wouldn’t it seem logical to count days only up to seven and then by full weeks? Lastly, the reason behind the title of the entire seffira is unclear – why refer to it as the omer, the omer is simply a measurement, in this case of oats, why don’t we refer to it as seffiras haSeorim or seffiras haMincha Chadasha (the flour offering that is the first to contain the new wheat of the season which is offered at the culmination of the seffira)?
All of our questions reflect the misunderstandings of an outsider looking in. When we come to a fuller realization of the meaning of seffira, our questions won’t be answered – they will simply fade away.
The holiday of Pesach is the holiday of redemption. There is an important distinction between redemption and salvation (Geulah and Hatzalah). To save someone usually means to somehow prevent a negative event. Sometimes, it can mean to mitigate or otherwise neutralize the negative effects of an event (ex. When my power went out, my neighbor really saved me by offering refrigerator space for all my food). To redeem, however, means to remove the person from their situation. Redemption is usually accompanied by accepting personal responsibility for them from here on out. While Hashem certainly saved us from the Egyptian bondage and torture, He ultimately redeemed us from Egypt entirely into his domain and personal jurisdiction.
This redemption happened in multiple stages. Firstly, Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt (this was accomplished in one day – with the same term as the Torah uses to describe the removal of leaven from our houses for Pesach – “תשביתו” or “Sabbaticalize”) then Hashem took the Egypt out of the Jews (this took the remaining 49 days until the Jews were ready for the purpose of their redemption – the receipt of the Torah).
Taking the Egypt out of the Jews was a process with at least two major components – "סור מרע ועשה טוב" – “turn away from bad [deeds] and perform good [ones]” [Tehillim 34:15]. Performing good deeds is a daily event. We rise every day and thank Hashem for the ability to serve Him and for the opportunities He gives us to do mitzvos. How do you “turn away” from bad deeds, though? By being presented with the opportunity and refusing. We are not faced with the same challenges every day – there are the diverse trials of the weekday and the unique set of circumstances that govern the weekend. In order to truly wash our hands from sin we must experience both and come out unblemished. This is the reason for the two separate counts.
Finally, why the reference to the measurement of the Omer instead of its substance? because it is that philosophy that keeps us going day by day. While we do need to focus on a “big” goal and know where our life and Torah accomplishments are going; ultimately, we should realize that it isn’t the “big goals” that count. Hashem put us here every day to accomplish an everyday goal. As the mishna states “It is not up to you to finish the task, yet you are not at liberty to desist from working towards its completion” [Avos 2:16] The most empowering lesson of all is that Hashem only requires from us our part, our “measure”.
And when we shoulder our part of the burden, the Hashem will surely see the interwoven tapestry of all of Am Yisrael and bring the final redemption, speedily in our days. Amen.
So, happy counting, because every day counts, because you count, and because Hashem is counting on you !
Hatzlacha !

Monday, March 25, 2013

Anti Chaos Theory

Probably the biggest lesson that we can take from the seder on Pesach is its name.
Why is it called the seder (literally, the order)? On a simple level – because we have so many mitzvos to fulfill that is we don’t perform them in a pre arranged order – we may forget one or more.
I think there is a deeper reason as well.
The message of the entire story of the exodus and the crippling punishment of the Egyptians is precisely that – that there is an order to the world. Events are not happenstance and there is a choirmaster that directs everything. If there is one message that we must internalize on this holy, holy night – this is it.
Have a very meaningful seder !

Friday, March 22, 2013

Doing Our Best - But Why ?!

In the special Haftarah that we read for Shabbos Hagadol we hear the prophet Malachi tell of the messianic era. After centuries and millennia of toil – devoted Yidden who toiled, guided only by their unwavering faith will finally be recognized and rewarded. Obviously, their reward will be commensurate with their efforts and will be granted on several levels. One distinction that will be made involves those who “serve Hashem and those who do not serve Him” [Malachi 3:18]
The Gemara [Chagiga 9b] teaches us that both of the people referred to in the passuk have been righteous, that is why they receive divine rewards. The harsh condemnation of an incomplete tzaddik as “one who does not serve Him” is solely in reference to that tzaddik’s lack of total dedication. How is this lack of totality expressed ? He has only reviewed his learning 100 times and not 101.
An idea that explains this seemingly harsh statement is an analysis of motives. What drives us to achieve and excel in our Avodas Hashem ? Sometimes it is nothing more than a type A personality that looks to overachieve in everything. While every effort spent in divine service deserves recognition, there is a special place reserved to reward those that toil purely for the sake of Heaven. There is nothing to gain (qualitatively) from reviewing one’s learning that extra hundred and first time, yet one whose avodah is purely lishma will do it, while those who only seek to excel will not.
This Pesach we will all perform many, many acts of avodah – the cleaning, cooking and even learning to insure that we will have a memorable Pesach. Lest an impure thought creep into our motives – lest we be driven by a mundane desire to just “do it right” – let us remember the admonishing words of Malachi. Even when there will be ‘no difference’ and even when all is already done – let us exert our best efforts in recognition of the true reason. We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt – and now, gloriously so, we are slaves to the Almighty.
Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Now You Have Money... And Now You Don't

The Torah [Vayikra 5:1-13] describes a particular type of offering known as “קרבן עולה ויורד” or the “Rising and falling offering”. This is an atonement offering that is brought to complete a teshuvah process for a few specific sins including taking an oath in vain and entering the Beis Hamikdash while forgetting that one is impure.
 The reference of rising and falling is to the value of the offering. If the one seeking atonement is wealthy, an animal offering is brought. If he (or she) is of lesser financial means, the korban is two doves. And, finally, if the penitent possesses even fewer funds, they may fulfill the korban with a flour offering.
The sliding scale nature of the korban is certainly very understandable – after all, every man should pay according to his means. There is, however, a slight difficulty in understanding the justice of this method. The Talmud [tractate kerisus 27b, quoted by Rashi here] teaches that if a person committed these sins while wealthy and subsequently fell from financial grace, they need only bring the lesser korban. The opposite also holds true, if the sinner was impoverished and received a windfall, then a wealthy person’s offering is required.
Shouldn’t the sinner be responsible to bring the level of offering that corresponds to his financial status at the time of the sin ?
The answer lies in an understanding of what any korban is coming to accomplish. If we (mistakenly) believe that a sin offering is somehow making restitution for the crime committed – then we would be justified in believing that the sinner’s level of wealth at the time of the sin matters. But in truth, the korban is not coming to replace anything that was lost. It is, rather, coming to repair a relationship that was broken. As such, it should, no – must, take into account where the penitent is standing now. Because it is only from his current position that the former sinner must pursue G-d and seek to draw close to him.
Perhaps this is another allusion to the name of the offering. In our spirituality, we all rise and fall – if we dwell on former glories we may fail to conquer our current hurdles. But once we realize that we can always start from where we find ourselves right now – we can begin to re-build our spirituality and once again soar to staggering hights.
Hatzlacha !!