Number Our Days

Number Our Days

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Shabbat Shalom
Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 7:46 p.m.
Torah readings: Lev. 25:1-26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Shabbat ends: 8:51 p.m.

The Book of Leviticus, at various points, seems almost fixated on the commandment to “count.” Barely two chapters ago we were commanded to count the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot, “until the day after the seventh week you shall count fifty days” [Leviticus 23:15-16]. And now in Behar, we’re commanded to count the seven cycles of the sabbatical years (seven times seven or 49 years) until the 50th and Jubilee year [Lev. 25:8-13].

All of these “countings” must in some way be related.

The count from Passover to Shavuot is, at least from a clear Biblical perspective, the count from slavery to freedom, from Egypt to the Land of Israel. On Passover we left Egypt, getting only as far as the desert, with all of its uncertainties. It is specifically Shavuot that is Biblically defined as the Festival of the First Fruits, which were to be brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem [Lev. 23:17]. The Bible underscores the relationship between Shavuot and Jerusalem when it discusses the special declaration to be made by the Israelite upon bringing the fruits to the Temple altar [Deut. 26:1-2].

This idea is even further deepened by the text of the Haggadah during the Passover seder. The Mishnah (in Arvei Pesachim) teaches that the central part of our retelling of the Exodus include the very verses that an individual must read when bringing the first fruits — from “Arami oved Avi” (an Aramean tried to destroy my forefather) until the end of that portion [Deuteronomy 26:5-10]. However, we do not explicate the entire speech; the Haggadah neglects to include the last two verses of the declaration of the one who brings the first fruits.

The Haggadah quotes: “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather; he descended to Egypt [and we] became great, strong and numerous. The Egyptians… afflicted us. … [We] cried out to the Lord our God who heard our voice, saw our affliction, and took us out of Egypt with a strong hand… with signs and with wonders” [Deut. 26:5-8]. However, the final two verses, “He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now behold I have bought the first fruit of the earth that you have given me, O Lord” [Deut. 26:9-10], are deleted by the author of the Haggadah.

It’s been said that the reason for this deletion is that our entry into the Land of Israel is only a destination and not our final destiny. I would respectfully maintain that the very opposite is the case. It was our sojourn in Egypt and even our escape from Egypt that were very much directed by God and were part and parcel of Jewish fate. It was our entry into Israel, our establishment of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem and our ability to spiritually influence the world, that is very much dependent upon our own desires and actions. It is the desert that was a temporary destination; Israel and Jerusalem is the Jewish destiny of being a light unto the nations of the world.

That is why the Bible commands, “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year” within the context of our counting of the Sabbatical years leading up to the Jubilee. The very word Jubilee is either identified with the Hebrew word shofar, the instrument used as our call to repentance, or from yovel which means “he (the nation) shall lead” the entire world back to God. The Jubilee year is Biblically defined as a declaration of universal freedom and the return of every individual to his homestead, obvious expressions of redemption.

This march of national freedom, from Egyptian slavery to security in our own land and our spiritual mission, is expressed by sefira, the counting. The Hebrew root, spr also means to tell, to recount, to clarify, which is the real commandment of the seder night of sipur yetziat Mitzraim, telling the story of the Exodus. The same root, spr, also appears in the biblical description of the throne of the Divine at the time of the revelation at Sinai, which is like “the white of the sapphire (sappir) and the purity of the heavens” [Exodus 24:10].

From this linguistic perspective, it becomes necessary to understand the commandment to count sefira as a commandment to become pure and to move closer to the throne of the Almighty.

Since there is no redemption without repentance and purification, we now understand why Shavuot is also the time when we receive the Torah — our road map to purity and redemption — and why Shavuot is truly the festival of our destiny. We now also understand why mystical and chasidic literature refers to the emanations of the Divine in this world as sefirot.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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