Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pesach and the Counting of the Omer

Pesach, the holiday of our freedom, as we know should be celebrated as our most joyous festival. Yet on the second day of Pesach we start counting the Omer. The joy is no longer unlimited. It becomes subdued. What does counting represent if not the lack of something in the present that is anticipated in the future? Furthermore, Chazal have imbued the time of the Omer with a quasi mourning characteristic. The Baal Hamaor in fact claims that the reason that we do not make a sheheheyanu on Sefiras Haomer is because the counting is a mournful one.

The Rav asks: why did the Torah mix with the joy of Pesach the sadness of the Sefirah period? Even if one would say that this mourning is on a rabbinic level, obviously our rabbis were connecting this mourning to the Omer since the Omer lends itself to this.

Rabbi Soloveitchik answers this through an analysis of the pesukim that describe the connection between Pesach and the Omer in Sefer Vayikra. It says:

ויקרא פרק כג
ד אֵלֶּה מוֹעֲדֵי יְקֹוָק מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם בְּמוֹעֲדָם:
ה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לַחֹדֶשׁ בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם פֶּסַח לַיקֹוָק:
ו וּבַחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה חַג הַמַּצּוֹת לַיקֹוָק שִׁבְעַת יָמִים מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ:
ז בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ:
ח וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַיקֹוָק שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ: פ
ט וַיְדַבֵּר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר:
י דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת קְצִירָהּ וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם אֶל הַכֹּהֵן:
יא וְהֵנִיף אֶת הָעֹמֶר לִפְנֵי יְקֹוָק לִרְצֹנְכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת יְנִיפֶנּוּ הַכֹּהֵן:
טו וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה:
טז עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַיקֹוָק:

The Rav notes that despite the fact that the Omer is brought on the second day of Pesach, Pesach and the Omer are presenting separately in the verses. Not only that but the word used by the Karban Omer and the counting of the Omer is מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת it should begin on the day after Shabbos. Some of you might know that this was the source for the famous argument between the Perushim and Boethusians. The Boethusians read מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת literally as the day after Shabbos and always started the Sefiras HaOmer on the day after Shabbos following Pesach so that Shavuos was always a Sunday. The Perushim who represent rabbinic Judaism hold that here Shabbos means a day we do not work, namely the first day of the Yom Tov of Pesach and not the day of Shabbos so Shavuos can fall out on any day of the week. This was such a strong argument that on the day that the Perushim finally defeated the Boethusians they made a holiday. Why is it that the Torah chose to call the start of the Omer as מָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת instead of directly connecting it to Pesach?

The Rav answers that this is because the Pesach and the Omer represent two opposite extremes. Pesach represents the supernatural, Hashem's open revelation and intercession into Jewish history with the Yetzias Mitzrayim. This is what we celebrate on the seder night. But as we know, Hashem cannot always be so openly involved in history. In order for humanity to be endowed with free will and the ability to make independent choices, Hashem must operate behind the veil of a natural world. This is represented by the Omer. When Benay Yisrael arrive in Israel, they will plow and plant the soil and then grow their produce through natural means. After harvesting their first crops, they are commanded to bring the Karban Omer the barley from this natural harvest. This is the reason why the Pesach and Omer are presented separately despite the fact that they coincide on the calendar. The Pesach celebrates the God of revelation while the Omer commemorates the God of natural events. It is also for this reason that the Omer is brought מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת. Shabbos represents the natural order of creation. In six days, Hashem created the world and on the seventh he rested. It is after Shabbos that we bring the Omer.

The Omer then has a certain sadness to it. After experiencing the great joy and revelation of the Pesach holiday. We have to go back to a normal existence. It is back to work and back to school.

The challenge of the beginning of the Omer is to bring the Karban Omer, to recognize that Hashem is just as involved in the natural as he is in the supernatural, only he is hidden from view. Hashem is always there. Only he hides behind the veil of nature and history. For brief fleeting moments he shows himself in all of his glory like at the splitting of the Yam Suf. We remember this and use these moments of inspiration to see Hashem throughout the rest of the year in natural events. It is this that we commemorate through the counting of the Omer.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Bones of Joseph and the Exodus

In the description of the Exodus of Benay Yisrael from Egypt, the Torah takes a detour to describe Moshe's involvement in the bones of Yosef.

שמות פרק יג
יט וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף עִמּוֹ כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם:

The Gemara in Sota says that this was a tremendous merit for Moshe:

ת"ר: בא וראה כמה חביבות מצות על משה רבינו, שכל ישראל כולן נתעסקו בביזה והוא נתעסק במצות, שנאמר: +משלי י+ חכם לב יקח מצות וגו'. .

While the rest of Benay Yisrael was collecting gold and silver from the Egyptians, Moshe was keeping a promise made to our father Yosef Hatzaddik many centuries ago.
The Rav points out that this was at great risk to the entire plan of Benay Yisrael since they had told Pharaoh that they were only leaving for a 3 day journey into the desert. Even the collection of gold and silver from the Egyptians was done under the premise that they were "borrowing" the precious metals to use in their three day celebration and then they would return it. Rabbi Soloveitchik asks why did Moshe Rabbenu himself have to be involved in Yosef's bones and why he risk his whole plan by taking Yosef's bones which is clearly a statement that they were planning a permanent Exodus from Egypt?
The Medrash Tanhuma begins to answer this question explaining that it was because of Yosef's bones that the Yam Suf split as we read in Hallel הים ראה וינוס, the sea saw and fled. What did the sea see that caused it to flee and split? She saw the bones of Yosef Hatzadik who also fled from the wife of Potiphar who was trying to seduce him as it says וינס ויצא החוצה.
This Medrash is based on another Gemara in Sota:

בראשית לט: ותתפשהו בבגדו לאמר וגו' - באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו ונראתה לו בחלון, אמר לו: יוסף, עתידין אחיך שיכתבו על אבני אפוד ואתה ביניהם, רצונך שימחה שמך מביניהם?

What led Yosef, a teenage boy living alone in a strange land to such an act of heroism against the constant advances of this beautiful woman? He saw the image of his father in the window. What was his father saying? In the future, the stones of the tribes will be inscribed on the Kohen Gadol's breast plate. Do you want to be counted with the tribes?
Yosef Hatzaddik in the moment of his greatest trial used two images to triumph over his Yetzer Hara, his father representing his glorious past and traditions, and the stones on the breast plate, representing his hopes and aspirations of an even greater future as a part of Kelal Yisrael. How could he sacrifice his role in this great chain of Jewish history for the pleasures of a fleeting moment?
This was the reason why Moshe Rabbenu risked all to take the bones of Yosef with him when he left Mitzrayim. He knew that at the Yam Suf, the angels will turn to Hashem and ask הללו עובדי עבודה זרה, והללו עובדי עבודה זרה? Why save the Jews and drown the Egytians? These worship idols and these worship idols. And Hashem will see the bones of Yosef and split the sea. Yosef used the images of the past and future to conquer the desires of the present. It was the merit of Yosef who brought us into Egypt and it was also his merit that brought us out on dry land through the waters of the raging sea.
Throughout the travels of Benay Yisrael in the desert 2 Arons led the way, the Ark of the Covenant and the ark of the bones of Yosef and it was in both of these merits that Benay Yisrael was victorious in all of its battles as the Yalkut Shimoni says:

שהיה ארונו של יוסף מהלך עם ארון חי העולם והיו או"ה א"ל מה טיבן של שני ארונות הללו והן אומרים זה ארונו של מת וזה ארונו של חי העולמים והיו אומרים להן אומות העולם מה טיבו של מת מהלך עם ארון חי עולמים, והן אומרים המונח בארון זה קיים מה שכתוב בזה,

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Hero of the Pesach Seder

Read the classic of biography of Rabbi Akiva here.

On Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach, we read from Shir Hashirim, a metaphor for Hashem’s relationship with Benay Yisrael. The Mishna in Yadaim records a Machlokes about whether Shir Hashirim should be included in the biblical canon. After a heated discussion, it is Rabbi Akiva who comes to the rescue and states

אמר רבי עקיבה, חס ושלום: לא נחלק אדם מישראל בשיר השירים שלא תטמא את הידיים, שאין העולם כולו כדאי ביום שניתנה בו שיר השירים לישראל--שכל הכתובים קודש, ושיר השירים קודש קודשים; ואם נחלקו, לא נחלקו אלא על קוהלת.


I will discuss one aspect of Shir Hashirim which thanks to Rabbi Akiva is the most precious of our 24 Sefrei Tanach this afternoon. It is my belief that Rabbi Akiva is not only the hero of Shir Hashirim but of the entire Chag of Pesach. Where does Rabbi Akiva appear in Pesach? He is found in the seder.

מַעֲשֶׂה בְּרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻעַ וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה וְרַבְּי עֲקִיבָא וְרַבִּי טַרְפוֹן שֶהָיוּ מְסֻבִּין בִּבְנֵי בְרַק, וְהָיוּ מְסַפְּרִים בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם כָּל אוֹתוֹ הַלַּיְלָה עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ תַלְמִידֵיהֶם וְאָמְרוּ לָהֶם: רַבּוֹתֵינוּ, הִגִּיעַ זְמַן קְרִיאַת שְׁמַע שֶׁל שַׁחֲרִית.


It is interesting to note that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua were both teachers of Rabbi Akiva and yet they went to Rabbi Akiva’s seder in his hometown of Benei Berak to join him. Why did these rabbis come to Rabbi Akiva’s seder?

I believe that the answer can be found by analyzing Rabbi Akiva’s contribution to a different part of the seder. The Mishna in Pesachim 116b, records argument between Rabbi Akiva and Rav Tarfon about the Beracha recited at the end of the Magid service in the Hagadah.

ר"ט אומר אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותינו ממצרים ולא היה חותם רבי עקיבא אומר כן ה' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך ונאכל שם <מן הפסחים ומן הזבחים> [מן הזבחים ומן הפסחים] כו' עד בא"י גאל ישראל


We follow Rabbi Akiva. Rav Tarfon stops with the past. He recited blessed are you Hashem who redeemed us and redeemed our forefathers from Egypt. Rav Akiva says that the past is not enough. You have to look to the future.

כן ה' אלקינו ואלקי אבותינו יגיענו למועדים ולרגלים אחרים הבאים לקראתנו לשלום שמחים בבנין עירך וששים בעבודתך

Hashem will give us redemptions in the future as well. Rabbi Akiba is living in a post Hurban world where the world is shattered and he is saying Davka now we can’t just look to the past but we have to look to a better future. He says that we have to look to better days. This is the trademark of Rabbi Akiba. He has the vision to see beyond the bleakness of the present to a glorious future.

The Gemara Makkos 24b records 2 stories about Rabbi Akiba that illustrate his eternal optimism. Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva were once walking on the road at Puteoli in Italy. They could hear the noise of the crowds in the coliseum in Rome, one hundred and twenty mil away. Rabban Gamaliel, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, R. Yehoshua burst into weeping, but R. Akiva continued to be cheerful. They asked him: Akiva, why are you so cheerful? He replied: Why are you weeping? They: These heathen, who bow down to images and burn incense to idols, live in safety and tranquility, whereas we--whose Temple, the "footstool" of our God, is burned down by fire--are we not to weep? He replied: For that very reason, I am cheerful. If they who offend Him fare thus, how much better by far will fare those who please Him!

Another time, the same sages were coming up to Jerusalem together, and when they reached Mount Scopus they rent their garments. When they got to the Temple Mount and saw a jackal emerging from the Holy of Holies, they began to weep, but R. Akiva laughed. Why, they asked him, are you laughing? He replied: Why are you weeping? They: The place of which Scripture says, "The common man that draws near shall be put to death" (Num. 1:51), is now become the haunt of jackals. Should we not weep? He said to them: For that very reason, I am laughing. For it is written, "And I call reliable witnesses, Uriah the Priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah" (Isa. 8:2). Now what connection is there between Uriah and Zechariah? Did not Uriah live during First Temple, while Zechariah [lived and prophesied] during the Second Temple? Still, Scripture links the [later] prophecy of Zechariah with the [earlier] prophecy of Uriah. In the [earlier] prophecy, [in the days] of Uriah, it is written,

יב לָכֵן, בִּגְלַלְכֶם, צִיּוֹן, שָׂדֶה תֵחָרֵשׁ; וִירוּשָׁלִַם עִיִּין תִּהְיֶה, וְהַר הַבַּיִת לְבָמוֹת יָעַר.

"Because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the Temple Mount a shrine in the woods" (Mic. 3:12), and in Zechariah, it is written,

ד כֹּה אָמַר, יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, עֹד יֵשְׁבוּ זְקֵנִים וּזְקֵנוֹת, בִּרְחֹבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם; וְאִישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּוֹ בְּיָדוֹ, מֵרֹב יָמִים. ה וּרְחֹבוֹת הָעִיר יִמָּלְאוּ, יְלָדִים וִילָדוֹת, מְשַׂחֲקִים, בִּרְחֹבֹתֶיהָ.

"Thus saith the Lord of hosts: There shall yet old men and old women sit in the broad places of Jerusalem" (Zech. 8:4). So long as Uriah's [dire] prophecy had not yet had its fulfillment, I feared that Zechariah's prophecy would not be fulfilled; now that Uriah's prophecy has been fulfilled, it is quite certain that Zechariah's prophecy also is to be fulfilled. They said to him: Akiva, you have comforted us! Akiva, you have comforted us!

This quality is commemorated through the period of Sefiras Haomer that follows Pesach. We all know the custom to mourn during this time for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva that died. But do you know what Rabbi Akiva did after this dire tragedy when he lost his entire glorious Yeshiva in the Galilee? The Gemara in Yevamot 62b records that he traveled south and found five remaining students to teach. These were R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Jose, R. Simeon and R. Eleazar b. Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. We mourn because of the students that died. Rabbi Akiva continued to teach and it was these five new students who formed the backbone of the Mishna. Without Rabbi Akiva’s optimism and heroism, the Oral Law and all of Halachic Judaism would have died in those bleak days. Because Rabbi Akiva continued to spread Torah, the Torah survived and thrives to this day.

It was for this reason that the 4 rabbis all gathered in Benay Berak to spend the seder with Rabbi Akiva. Where else to see the Geulah of the future at the seder after the destruction of the temple than in Rabbi Akiba’s hometown. You need the optimism of Rabbi Akiba who could take the most difficult situations and see the bright future that awaits.

In the book "Under Strange Skies" Harry Simonhoff, describes his own experience with Rabbi Akiva when he traveled to England visit the ruins of the walls built by the Roman emperor Hadrian who arranged to have Rabbi Akiva killed. Before visiting the walls he had to daven Mincha since he had yarzheit that day. He asked the populace and they led him to the nearest minyan in the great Gateshead Yeshiva. Then he visited the Roman wall of Hadrian. He describes his experience:
"In this English Volozhin, slight young men sit on hard benches, swaying over tomes of the Talmud, the Midrash, the Tosafists. Here is a genuine old-world yeshiva taking root in English soil. I left the school in a taxi - The taxi stopped and the driver said, "Sir, this is the Roman Wall". I got out to inspect the ruins of the wall which Hadrian built between Newcastle and Carlisle. It suddenly occurred to me that this was the Hadrian who crushed Bar Kochba and had Akiba flayed alive for teaching Judaism, which was forbidden by imperial decree. The Romans are gone forever. Hadrian's proud wall is a series of broken mounds. But nearby, the English yeshiva bochurim [students] are keeping alive the ethos of Gamliel and Akiba".
It is this optimism of Rabbi Akiva that makes him the hero of my Pesach seder. The Romans who destroyed our temple and murdered Rabbi Akiva and his many students are long forgotten. Rabbi Akiva, his teachers, and disciples survive. We are living proof of the power of Rabbi Akiva’s optimism.