Rabbi David Walk
As the memory of the Pesach Seders fade, it's easy to lose focus on the continuing exodus story. The story doesn't end with the conclusion of Pesach. The source of the emphasis on the number four at our Seders is the four terms of redemption found in chapter six of Exodus. According to tradition those four words represent the steps in this redemption saga, namely the ending of the work with the beginning of the plagues, the actual departure from
Egypt on the fifteenth of Nissan, the crossing of the Sea on the seventh day of Pesach, and, finally, the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai fifty days after exiting Egypt. To help us concentrate on this progression from slavery to freedom, we have the mitzvah of counting the Omer from the second day of Pesach until the eve of Shavuot. So, it behooves us to try and figure out the purpose of this mitzvah to connect these two holidays, which are two stages in the redemption narrative.
Before I get back to the main idea of this article I have a short detour. It's really a shame that the Omer period has lost much of its charm and joy, because of the sad events which occurred during this time period during the second century of the Common Era. Most Jewish kids in school learn about the semi-mourning we exhibit because of the twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva who died during these days. Many people think it's more important to refrain from haircuts and parties than to fulfill the mitzvah from the Torah of counting these days and remembering the ideas of this count. It's sad, but so much of Jewish history imposes a veil of tears over the eternal verities of Torah that we often lose the main thread of the story. But not us, we're going to keep aim at the original purpose of these days.
So, to truly understand the meaning of this forty-nine day count, we must understand the level of redemption gained at the foot of Mount Sinai. The first two steps in the exodus process removed the physical vestiges of the oppression, namely the slave labor and the incarceration in Egypt. At the shores of the Sea a psychological redemption was achieved when the Jews witnessed the demise of Egypt's military power. We were no longer intimidated by them. What was left to be accomplished? To better understand the level attained at Mount Sinai, I want to present a concept of freedom described by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). He explained that there are two kinds or flavors of freedom. The first is the freedom from the coercion of others, the other is the freedom to follow one's own rational and moral conscience. In the 50's and 60's the great British philosopher (and Jew) Isaiah Berlin (1909-1998) described negative liberty as freedom from something, and positive liberty as freedom to do something. He was concerned that the great authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, had proven that freedom might be abused in the name of a greater cause. So, he leaned toward negative freedom as the superior form. He feared that whenever a government or ideology could decide what is best for the society, totalitarianism is inevitable.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, tremendously respects that the presentation of Berlin, from 1958, when he wrote "Two Concepts of Liberty," was an important philosophic attack on Communist ideology. But, he declares, Berlin was wrong. Not surprisingly, Judaism demands a middle position. Torah recognizes that, as Berlin posits, positive freedom, which demands adherence to ideologically pure behavior, can lead to absolute dictatorship. However, Torah also notes that negative freedom, which demands that there be no coercive actions, leads to chaos and the jungle. Under those circumstances a new tyranny of right by might prevails. So, a new model is demanded, and Judaism provides it.
The difficult balancing act of freedom with restraints is hinted at in the Ten Commandments. God declares: I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2). God is describing two kinds of freedom, one from Egypt and one from slavery. The Torah describes a new paradigm. This phenomenon was unique until the American experiment. The revolution in human thinking was based on an informed choice to give one's loyalty to God. Leaving slavery resulted in a kind of liberty which is called in Hebrew chofesh or freedom from all restraints and encumbrances. In modern Israel that's the word for a vacation. The departure from Egypt, on the other hand, resulted in a shift of our allegiance from Pharonic authority to Divine influence. This transference was the result of our voluntary acceptance of God's power. Even though there have been short periods of Jewish history when Torah law was enforced by courts and police, by and large our observance of Halacha is based on our relationship with God. This second form of freedom which contains elements of positive freedom to display certain behavior is called cherut. This term comes from the Hebrew word to engrave. This system works because the principles are engraved on our hearts.
Now we can understand this time period between Pesach and Shavuot. During these few weeks, we almost had a trial marriage with God. Certain mitzvoth were introduced, like Shabbat, and we were trying this new life style on to see how it fit. This courtship ended at Mount Sinai with the ceremony which bound us to God. We accepted a format of rules and God made us a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'
We won our freedom at Pesach but to maintain that liberty for over three millennia has required us to pledge ourselves to a system of virtue and ethics undiluted by time. That happened at Mount Sinai. Every year we must use these seven weeks to reaffirm our commitment to this marriage or covenant, and reconfirm it every Shavuot by a new and joyous ratification of the Torah. We owe this eternal endeavor and our progeny nothing less. Let the exodus process continue.
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