Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Walk Article

GROWTH

Tazria-Metzora—5770

Rabbi David Walk

 

            We rabbi types are always saying that this week or this time period is the most important of the year.  We say it so often that we can lose our credibility.  It's the rabbinic equivalent of crying wolf.  So, it is with incredible foolishness that I proudly claim that this is the most important time of the year.  These seven weeks from the exodus to the epiphany were truly momentous for the Jews of the desert and remain critical for Jewish awareness and development.  This significance continues into the modern era as we commemorate both the Holocaust and the birth of Israel during these days.  But, in this installment I want to comment on the original meaning of this time frame.

            To begin this analysis, I must ask the seemingly irrelevant question:  What do Counting the Omer and Paul Simon have in common?  Okay, I'll give you a couple of seconds to digest and respond to that unexpected query.  As Simon (sans Garfunkle, sniff!) so poetically expressed:  "The problem is all inside your head", she said to me. The answer is easy if you take it logically.  I'd like to help you in your struggle to be free. There must be fifty ways to leave your lover!! Why must there be exactly fifty ways to depart from a long standing relationship?  Well, Paul Simon presciently understood the Sefirat Ha'Omer period.  It's no accident that Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai are exactly fifty days after the departure from Egypt.  Furthermore, it's no coincidence that the exodus from Egypt is mentioned exactly fifty times in the Torah.  In Kabbalah, fifty is the number used to describe the number of spiritual steps in any measurement model, as there are fifty gates of impurity or fifty measures of prophecy.  Unlike Paul Simon's lover, who had fifty possibilities for leaving (Don't need to be coy, Roy), we had to leave Egypt in all fifty possible ways for the departure to be successful and have eternal impact.  Other redemptions were not as comprehensive, therefore don't resonate as profoundly in our lives or calendar.

            I know some of us have trouble just getting through the count successful, but shouldn't we want to get more out of this activity?  Assuming that each day of the Omer count represents another way of leaving the Egypt experience farther and farther in our past, how do we accomplish this spiritual feat?  The mystics began helping us centuries ago by assigning Kabbalistic meaning to each day's count, through permutations of seven of the character traits of the mystical sfirot (chesed, kindness; gevura, strength; tiferet, splendor; netzach, eternity; hod, majesty, yesod, foundation and malchut, royalty).  In this way we are supposed to raise our spiritual level daily.  More recently there have been Omer counters with a daily thought or meditation to help us develop our midot.

            I believe that there was a more mainstream attempt to make these weeks religiously meaningful, which has been going on for centuries.  At least since Reb Saadiah Gaon (10th century), people have been studying Pirkei Avot or Ethics of our Fathers every Shabbat during these seven weeks.  The rabbis wanted us to use this inspiring material to make the necessary changes in ourselves during this crucial time of the year.  I could choose any of dozens of sayings to make this point, but I think that there is one statement in the second chapter, which we read this week, that forcefully develops this idea of personal growth.

            The second chapter of Pirkei Avot begins with the following assertion:  Rabbi Judah the Prince (135-220 CE) said: Which is the proper course that a man should choose for himself? That which is an honor to him and elicits honor from his fellow men.  Before I try to analyze the vital concept contained in this Mishneh, I want to make a linguistic point. The word translated as choose is yavor, from borir.  This word was originally an agricultural term, and means to clarify or refine.  This concept is key to personal growth.  A person must work hard to achieve clarity of purpose and direction before one can embark on the road to spirituality.

            The central idea in this Mishneh is that our behavior should simultaneously make me feel good about myself, while inspiring others as well.  Rabbi Judah teaches us that when we are both true to ourselves and concerned for others we have chosen the proper path.  This is important in itself, but the word he chose to describe this phenomenon is itself instructive.  The Hebrew for the word translated above as honor (Artscroll:  esteem) is tiferet.  We usually translate that term as splendor or glory.  Even though its meaning is related to beauty and magnificence, this expression is loaded with mystical connotations.  It is the sefira (trait) of Ya'akov Avinu, and implies a synthesis of other traits.  In the case of Ya'akov he combined the chesed of his grandfather Avraham with the gevura of his father Yitzchak.  In our Mishneh we are uniting self interest with altruism.  Jewish spiritual life and growth require us to merge differing interests, like secular with sacred or physical with pious, to attain a higher level.  Religious development requires a weaving of the disparate warps and woofs of our life into a brilliant tapestry of meaning. Rabbi Judah the Prince is teaching us that this beauty requires a clarity of the original strands, which don't lose their identity in the blending.  The word to describe that achievement is tiferet.

            So, during this season while we look outside and see the beautiful, new growth of the flowers and trees, it should remind us to grow and develop ourselves, as well.  Every spring brings a renewal in nature, why not in me?   Why can't my religious life mirror the splendor of the spring, and inspire and influence others.  Let's use this year's Omer period to become the best we can.



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