Before a holiday I always try to read “Noraos HaRav”, literally “The Amazing Words of the Rav”, a compilation of shiurim given by Rav J.B. Soloveichik, all dealing with the holidays. The shiurim were transcribed, translated and annotated by Rav David Schreiber. The shiurim are an amalgam of Talmud, Rambam, and Jewish Philosophy. They are available in both PDF and Audio at www.noraosharav.org.

At the end of Volume 14, in a shiur given 1970, Rav Soloveichik is discussing the counting of the omer (Sefirat Ha’omer), which we perform for forty-nine days from the second night of Pesach until Shavuot. There is disagreement as to whether the counting of the omer nowadays is a Torah-mandated mitzvah (d’Orayta) or a Rabbinical-mandated mitzvah (d’Rabbanan). All concur that it is a positive mitzvah. The question is, then, why don’t we make the Shehecheyanu[1] blessing when we count the omer, just as we do for nearly all mitzvot that are performed at a specific time of the calendar year?

Rav Soloveichik brings an answer from Rabbi Zerachya HaLevi of Girona, also known as the “Ba’al Ha’Maor”. According to the Ba’al Ha’Maor “[T]he Shehecheyanu blessing is recited on items from which one derives pleasure. The counting of the omer does not remind us of any pleasure. On the contrary – it was instituted to cause us aggravation over the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash.” Why do we count the omer? Most children, as well as a large percentage of adults, will answer that we count the omer in commemoration of the excitement and anticipation of Am Yisrael before they received the Torah. While this answer is not incorrect, it is not mentioned in the Torah nor is it mentioned in the Talmud. It is actually first mentioned in the Rambam’s “Guide for the Perplexed”, a strange book for young children to be reading. The reason for counting the omer is clearly discussed in the Torah [Vayikra 23:15-16] “You shall count for yourselves… from the day you bring the omer as a wave-offering seven weeks; You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to Hashem”. We are commanded to count the fifty days that separate two meal-offerings: the omer offering of the new barley offered the second day of Pesach and the Shtei HaLechem offering of the new wheat given on Shavuot. Fine, but isn’t there a deeper rationale of this mitzvah? The Torah gives none. As far as the Torah is concerned the counting of the omer is a purely technical mitzvah. As the mitzvah in its most basic form concerns meal-offerings that were offered in the Beit HaMikdash that sadly no longer stands, we can see why there is disagreement as to the status of the mitzvah today, and we can also understand the Ba’al Ha’Maor: When we count the omer today we remember that we are not performing the mitzvah as it was meant to be. We are living a shadow of a life that once was and so the Shehecheyanu blessing would be entirely out of place. And after we count the omer, we wistfully add “May the Merciful One return the service of the Beit HaMikdash speedily in our days”.

Rav Soloveichik turns to the verse in Eichah [1:7] “Jerusalem recalls the days of her poverty and her miseries [and] all her precious things from days of old” and concludes that there are two ways in which we are commanded to remember the Beit HaMikdash: “[W]e are obligated to take steps to remind ourselves of the Beit Hamikdash’s majesty as well as well as to take measures to re-experience the pain of its destruction. Examples of the “pain of its destruction” include counting the omer and breaking a glass at a wedding[2]. An example of the majesty of the Beit HaMikdash is the shaking of the lulav for the entire seven days of Sukkot. Before the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, the lulav was shaken for seven days only in the Beit HaMikdash. After the destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai decreed that the lulav be shaken for seven days everywhere in replication of the original practice. As this is performed out of joy, we do not append the shaking of the lulav with “May the Merciful One return the service of the Beit HaMikdash speedily in our days”.

Many years ago, when speaking from the pulpit in the Gold Coast Hebrew Congregation one Shabbos, I learned the hard way that it’s usually not a good idea to speak about the Holocaust. What I considered to be a completely benign remark caused the son of a survivor to go completely ballistic[3]. And yet, after fifteen years of silence I have something to say that I feel needs to be said. Ever since Poland left the Soviet bloc in 1989 there have been a steadily increasing number of Israeli high schools that send students from Grade 11 and 12 to Poland for a week. Four out of the six of my children who could have gone actually went. My son Elyassaf just returned last week. The night they left for Poland the parents were invited to the Yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva spoke and he made it eminently clear that while he had agreed to send the boys, he did not believe it was a good idea. My son explained to me that the Rosh Yeshiva felt that the reason a person went to Poland was to “shock the system”. A heart that has stopped might require defibrillation in order to restart it but give a healthy heart a jolt of electricity and you risk irreversibly damaging it. The Rosh Yeshiva felt that these boys did not require such a jolt and so the risks inherent in travelling to Poland outweighed the potential benefits of such a trip.

My wife and I have discussed and rediscussed over the years whether a trip to Poland would be beneficial or potentially harmful to our children. Perhaps it’s just a big waste of money which is going to the descendants of people who were all too happy to help the Nazis implement the Final Solution. But time and time again we reached the same conclusion, the same conclusion reached by Rav Soloveichik. To paraphrase, there are two ways in which we are commanded to remember Poland. When one thinks of Poland, one thinks of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz, the “Mountain of Ashes” at Majdanek, and the extermination pits at Treblinka where the ground is still soft. Indeed, my son visited all of these places. He saw the “the days of her poverty and her miseries”. On the other hand, Jews have lived in Poland for more than eight hundred years. At the start of World War II more than three million Jews lived in Poland. It was the European cradle of Jewish learning, home to hundreds of yeshivot and thousands of Torah scholars. My son spent Shabbat in Lublin. He davened in the Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin, where Rabbi Meir Schapiro instituted the Daf Yomi program. He visited the graves of Rav Moshe Isserles, who wrote the ultimate gloss on the Shulchan Aruch, of Rav Chaim Brisker, one of the most erudite Torah scholars since the Rambam, and of the Netziv of Volozhn, the last dean of the Volozhn Yeshiva. He experienced the “all her precious things from days of old”.

There was an additional benefit to Elyassaf’s trip, because of which we will encourage our youngest two daughters to make the trip when it is their time. Students traditionally are accompanied on their trip by a person who experienced the Holocaust first-hand: a “witness”. Elyassaf was my first child who was not accompanied by a witness. The reason should be obvious: a person who was old enough to experience the Holocaust is going to be nearing ninety years old. We are slowly but surely losing our witnesses. But there is a solution. Elyassaf’s principal, Rav Menachem, told the boys that they are the new witnesses. They will return home to Israel and they will be able to testify about what they saw and what they experienced, the misery and the majesty.

At the Seder table we will say the words “It was not our fathers who were redeemed from Egypt, but we, too, were redeemed together with them”. We left Egypt. We received the Torah at Sinai. We studied Torah in Volozhn, and we were burnt at Auschwitz. And together we will greet the Mashiach, speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5776

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka.

[1] Blessed are you, who has who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.

[2] Breaking a glass at a wedding is not a cue for people to shout “Mazal tov”. It is a somber moment.

[3][3] He did not threaten me with a knife. This is a relatively new phenomenon in Australian shuls.