The transitional period during which the “omer” is counted that follows the festival of Passover and leads to Shavuot should be considered a festive interlude. We are proceeding from redemption from Egypt to the revelation at Mount Sinai, setting the Jewish people on a path with principle and purpose for the future. In fact, Nachmanides likens this time to hol ha-moed — the intermediate days of rejoicing between festival days.
Yet, historically, this period has become associated with tragedy and mourning, primarily because of the talmudic story of the death of the 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiva. All agree that these students died as punishment because they did not respect one another as they should, though some blame plague and others the Bar Kochba revolt.
This association between sefirat ha-omer and trauma is not coincidental — because transitions are hazardous. In the biblical story, the Children of Israel are in a very vulnerable position during the period after their exodus from Egypt. Following their initial exuberance, the people must then settle into the difficult existence of desert life. Inspiration evaporates in the heat of the desert and is replaced by thirst and hunger. Passions run high and there is one incident after another: complaints about food and water, nostalgia for Egypt, attacks on leadership, the unprovoked attack by Amalek and ultimately the sin of the golden calf.
The people need some framework to maintain the cohesion and solidarity in order to survive the ongoing challenges of the wilderness. Moses striking a rock and interceding with God — relying on the stature of one individual to “make things right” — is not a long-term solution.
Politically, as well, the people are in limbo. With their redemption, they have shaken the heavy yoke of their Egyptian taskmasters, but they have not yet received the Torah at Sinai. They have political freedom without law — i.e., the institutions and governing framework a society needs to function.
This is a very precarious place to be. Freedom without the responsibilities and boundaries of the law is not sustainable and can too quickly degenerate into a state of anarchy in which “everyone did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21: 25)
The trepidation and foreboding which have come to characterize the period of sefirat ha-omer resonates greatly during the current circumstances today in the State of Israel. We too are in a state where we seem to enjoy political freedom without the grounding of a clear set of laws that provide guideposts and stability in our society. This impending chaos exposes us to internal discord as well as external threats.
We have secured political freedom during the first 75 years of the state, at a significant price in terms of blood, sweat and tears. Yet, like the Children of Israel plodding through the desert before arriving at Sinai, we see that is not enough. We are in need of a contemporary equivalent of Sinai to consolidate and preserve our freedom and forge a just and secure society which will not only survive but thrive.
As we lead up to Shavuot, it is also worth examining what happened at Sinai and how this fractious people was brought together. All stood together, saw the fire and smoke of the mountain, and heard the laws being commanded. They shared a formative experience that involved everyone present and they all responded in unison, na’aseh v’nishma, we will do and we will understand. This consensus forged a peoplehood that endured, even though challenges continued to arise.
We should think about the current push for legal reforms in this context. Our biblical history makes the case for the importance of a legal framework to shape the contours of our freedom and to provide clear ground rules for society. We also see the need for consensus to launch such a grand national enterprise, where there is active buy-in and acceptance is broad based.
As Israelis — secular, religious, left, right, Jew and non-Jew — we all need to be concerned. Rushing through a set of legal reforms without first achieving the kind of national unity modelled at Sinai — solidarity that we desperately need to aspire to today — should give everyone pause. And today, we see a lack of respect for one another that is ominously reminiscent of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Sefirat ha-omer reminds us of the dangers in this transitional period leading up to the giving of the law — and what happens when we demonize our opponents and don’t engage with dignity in society.
We must heed the warning signs of the period of Sefirat Ha-omer. Our “start-up nation” needs a new Sinai moment to institute a healthy system of law, with checks and balances to moderate the dangers of unchecked passions and interests, which we can all endorse – our own na’aseh v’nishma moment.
In the desert, it was the leadership who shepherded the people to Sinai. Today, the tables are turned and we the people must demand this of our leaders.