Rabbi David Walk
We're about a month into the baseball season. Unfortunately for Boston fans, the Red Sox have not started playing yet. I guess that's in character, because they also stopped playing last year before everyone else, around September first, I believe. Now, what's the most important idea in baseball? Keep your eye on the ball. Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter ever, said that the hardest thing in sports is to hit a baseball. So, keeping your eye on the ball at least gives you a chance to hit the ball, and, by the way, can also prevent you from getting hit by the ball, which is pretty bad. Well, I think that we must work on this issue in many parts of life. We often lose that focus to truly see what's important in the things we do. We're so often lost in details that the big picture fades from view. This is true in mitzvoth as well. It's sad, but sometimes I think that we've lost sight of the real importance of Counting the Omer.
Here we are in the midst of the Omer period, and I think that many of us don't really think about the significance of these seven weeks. When I look at materials prepared for schools to study this mitzva, usually the emphasis is on the mourning that takes place because of the death of Rabbi Akiva's students, which took place during this season in the second century of the Common Era. I must be honest I've never really understood this custom. It's seems to clash with logic. It's very sad, of course, that so many young Torah scholars (traditionally the number given is 24,000) died during so short a time. But we do have to put things into perspective. We mourn for thirty-three days for these students. The destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (along with hundreds of thousands of casualties) gets 21 days in the summer. And the Holocaust with its six million martyrs gets one day. Also, all the deaths to establish and protect the State of Israel is about the same number as Rabbi Akiva's students, again one day. The Chelmenitzki Massacres of 1648 which resulted in as many as a quarter million deaths, including many great Torah scholars and yeshivot, no days. Why this seeming lack of proportion?
Before offering my feeble attempt to answer this difficult question, allow me to say a few words about the original concept of the Counting of the Omer. These forty-nine days connect the holiday of Passover to the celebration of Shavuot. In this week's Torah reading we have the instructions to count these days and weeks between these two festivals. So, primarily, we want to connect the historical events of these two commemorations; we link the exodus from Egypt with the acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai. However, a careful reading of the material in our parsha teaches us that there are two other issues at work during these days. First of all, as in all our holidays, there is an agricultural aspect. These are the days when the reaping of the winter barley crop begins, and slowly by Shavuot the even more important wheat crop begins to ripen. Our sages have taught that without flour there is no Torah, and during this period we clearly yoke our anticipation for receiving the Torah with our yearning for a bountiful grain harvest for the sustenance of our nation. But the Torah adds one more element of significance to this period. The Torah states: When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely remove the corner of your field during your harvesting, and you shall not gather up the gleanings of your harvest. Rather, you shall leave these for the poor person and for the stranger. I am the Lord, your God (Leviticus 23:22). While gathering our bounty we must care about those who have less. We are combining the concepts of Torah, national wellbeing and social justice into the lessons of this time frame.
The Omer is a period of expectations. We await the receiving of the Torah. We look forward to the growing stores of grain to enrich our people. And we commit ourselves to love and respect our fellow human beings. I believe strongly that these expectations prompted the rabbis to institute the custom of learning Pirkei Avot, Ethics of our Fathers during this period, because all these themes permeate this amazing little book. When these hopes seem attainable we are filled with optimism and joy. However, when these prospects look dim, we are filled with the sadness of impossible dreams.
Let's look at the students of Rabbi Akiva again. Who were these young men? They were the future of Torah study for the Jewish nation. But they were also freedom fighters in the army of Bar Kochba; they were the first Hesder Yeshiva students, part time soldiers, part time scholars. Apparently they were archers in the army, hence the custom of bows and arrows on Lag B'Omer. The Talmud explains that their deaths came as a punishment for not treating one other with the proper respect. In other words these young men were the nation's hope for Torah, national aspiration and social justice. And all three target s were being missed.
Now we can understand why the custom developed to mourn for a majority of this period. The very purpose of the period was perverted and vanishing. All the hope and promise fading away. We are not just mourning those wonderful young men; we are mourning the very promise of the Sefira period. We had lost the purpose of these very days and weeks.
Today we start to see again the promise of this period. Celebrating Yom Ha'atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim during these days is perfectly appropriate, because it is restoring our vision for this time period. We are again focused on Torah, nation and kindness. We're back in the batter's box with our eye on the prize, waiting for the pitch, expecting to hit it out of the park.
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