Among the diverse plethora of topics discussed in our sedra, the long section of “Mo’adei Hashem,” which begins in the middle of the fourth aliyah, stands out in familiarity. After all, we read it three times every year, most recently less than two weeks ago (on the second day of Pesach/first day of Chol Hamo’ed Pesach). We’ve previously discussed the significance of the chiastic structure of the repeated “אלה מועדי ה’,” as well as the deeper meaning behind “אלו הם מועדי.” Now, I would like to focus on a very timely passuk located in the middle of this section:
וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.
And you will count for yourselves from the day after the Yom Tov (lit. shabbat), from the day that you brought the waving of the omer, seven complete weeks it shall be. (Vayikra 23:15)
According to Rav Yosef Karo, the Chafetz Chaim, and Rav Moshe ben Maimon in their respective codifications of Halacha, this is the primary source for our (hopefully still) ongoing obligation of counting each of the forty nine days which separate Pesach and Shavuot. Rav Karo even goes further to insists that even though the wording of the passuk is in the plural, the commandment of sefirat ha’omer is upon each individual, and not the community as a whole (like Kri’at HaTorah). This is why at the end of Arvit every night, every individual will make their own beracha and count Omer by themselves (though some sects of Yeminite Jews nonetheless count together with the shaliach tzibor, as I was loudly reminded during a shiur halacha at my work last week).
While this is how virtually every observant Jew in the world counts sefira, one may very well question why the commandment is given in the pesukim in plural, and not in singular as most mitzvot on individuals are.
Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook presents a beautiful answer to our question. He taught that here, just like by the commandment of Arbat Haminim on Sukkot (“ולקחתם לכם מפרי עץ הדר…”), the mitzva on the individual is given in plural. Why? Because, even though this mitzva is for each person to complete individually, the ultimate goal is for “ולקחתם” and “וּסְפַרְתֶּם” in the plural- that everyone together will be shaking their lulavim, and counting sefira. The mitzva may begin on an personal level, but the desired effect is very much national- the counting towards Matan Torah and hakafot towards Hoshana Raba are only ideally completed when everyone does them together. In this way, the mitzva of Sefirat Ha’omer is really on our national as a whole, individually.
It is no coincidence that the commandment of Sefirat Ha’omer is presented in this way. The seven weeks following Pesach, originally a time of happiness counting down in excitement to Zman Matan Torateinu, took on a more bitter note in later history as hundreds of students of Rabbi Akiva died, in the words of chazal, because they did not properly respect one another. While we cannot exactly relate to what it meant that these tremendous talmidei chachamim didn’t respect each other, I don’t think there can be any greater tikun to sin’at chinam than to fulfill the mitzva of Sefirat Ha’omer exactly in the sense that Rav Kook explained. The unity of all of Am Yisrael together completing the forty nine day countdown to Matan Torah is the perhaps the most appropriate remedy to the division that killed so many talmidei chachamim so long ago.
As many of my readers may be aware, the weeks of Sefirat Ha’omer contain four recent additions to the Jewish calendar, centered around modern Jewish history. A week ago, we commemorated the six million Jews who were killed by the Germans as the Western world stood by and let it happen. This past week, we commemorated the loss of hundreds of Jews who gave their lives for creating and maintaining a Jewish homeland, so that the nations could not once again plot to exterminate our people, and the following day, we celebrated the result of their sacrifice, Medinat Yisrael. In a few weeks, we will celebrate another victory, the reunification of our people’s eternal capital of Jerusalem, after a lengthy and illegal Jordanian occupation.
One common denominator between all of these holidays is perhaps the universality of their commemoration, within Israel at least. At 10:00 AM on Yom Hashoah, and 8:00 PM and 11:00 AM, the entire country completely stops for one or two minutes, as the siren wails and we remember those no longer with us. Even those of us who haven’t recently been in the Holy Land to experience this can watch videos on YouTube of the nation’s biggest arteries, the Begin Expressway in Jerusalem, the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Route 1, the Ayalon Freeway in Tel Aviv, just coming to a complete halt in recognition of those whose sacrifice allowed them to be there. The collective pain is simply palpable during these five minutes of national grief.
On Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim, the feeling is conversely true. On the former, one can scarcely walk down a street without seeing a family spending the day together, or enter a park without nearly losing their eyesight from the smoke and flames of dozens of Israeli al ha’aishim. On the latter, at least within Jerusalem, the streets are full of Jews exclusively wearing white and navy, dancing with Israeli flags and celebrating the miracle of the Six Day War.
Whether in celebration or mourning, one cannot help but feel like they are part of something bigger during these four modern-day observances, and it is no coincidence that these take place exclusively during Sefirat Ha’omer. For milenia, Am Yisrael’s only tikun for the sin’at chinam of the period between Pesach and Sukkot was the plural of the individual mitzva of counting Omer, making this mitzva of the yachid into a phenomenon of the rabim by collectively finishing the forty nine days together. Nowadays, we have a much more tangible symbol of our tikun for previous generations not properly respecting one another, and that is Medinat Yisrael, the result of centuries of Jewish prayer and hope, and the cause of sixty eight years of Jewish unity. One cannot live in Israel as part of Am Yisrael without feeling like part of something bigger, and that moment that one stops his car on the Ayalon freeway at 11:00 AM on Yom Hazikaron and stands on the side crying with random strangers over other random strangers that neither had ever met- this is achdut. The moment one sits in the smog of barbeques in Sacher Park in Jerusalem on Yom Ha’atzmaut, and eats his low-quality Israeli hotdogs over a sip of Arak with a neighboring family he had never met- this is achdut. When one prays Hallel at the Kotel with hundreds of other white and blue-clad Jews on Yom Yerushalayim, their only common denominator the happiness and pride at being able to pray to Hashem less than twenty feet from the Makom Hamikdash, something my great-grandparents could have only dreamed of doing in their childhood in Germany and Poland… this is achdut, this is “וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם” of Sefirat Ha’omer, and “ושמחתם לפני ה’ אלקיכם” of Lulav. This is the antithesis to the sin which caused death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, and the antidote to ancient and modern Sin’at Chinam.
As we continue into the second half of Sefirat Ha’omer, and (hopefully with a beracha) keep on counting the Omer until we celebrate Z’man Matan Torateinu in a month, let us work at keeping the spirit of achdut strong, avoid sin’at chinam, and may we merit to celebrate Shavuot together in a rebuilt Jerusalem and Bet Hamikdash, very very soon.