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The Weeks After Passover

The Weeks After Passover

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

Last Chametz: 10:37 a.m. (Fri.)
Candles: 7:25 p.m. (Fri.); 8:28 p.m. (Sat.)
Torah: Exodus 12:21-51 (Sat.); Lev. 22:26-23:44 (Sun.); Numbers 28:16-25 (both) 
Haftorah: Joshua 3:5-7; 5:2-6:1; 6:27 (both)
Havdalah: 8:29 p.m. (Sun.)

The Sages call Passover “the time of our freedom.” It is biblically known as the “Festival of Matzot,” the flat, rather tasteless dough that was never given a chance to ferment and rise; the “bread of affliction” our ancestors ate in Egypt.

Is it not strange that our freedom from a totalitarian regime is symbolized by a half-baked cracker, just flour-and-water, interrupted in its rising?

The Bible teaches, “You shall count for yourselves from the (second day) of the Festival … the day when you bring the Omer of the waving, seven weeks, they shall be complete [then] you shall offer a new meal-offering, baked and leavened loaves of bread” [Leviticus 23:15-17] to celebrate the Shavuot.

Why, after all manner of leavening has been forbidden during Passover, do we celebrate this connected holiday through the daily counting from Passover’s second day for a full seven weeks, with an offering of leavened, risen loaves of bread? Why is this culminating festival called “Weeks” (Shavuot), connoting a time of counting rather than an achievement worthy of a significant holiday?

Another question: On Passover we read the magnificent Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs), the love song between Shlomo and Shulamit, the shepherd and shepherdess, God and historic Israel. However, this love song is a hide-and-seek quest for a love and unity that is constantly elusive. At the moment that one lover finally opens the door, the other lover slips away and is gone. The final verse cries out, “Flee, my beloved, and appear to be like a gazelle or a young hart … upon the mountains of spices.”

The answer to all three of our questions lies in the distinction between the Western mentality and the Jewish mindset. Western culture measures everything by the bottom line: “Did you win or lose?” The ancient world, and especially Jewish teaching, is more interested in the method, the search for meaning, how you played the game. Indeed, the Chinese religion is called Tao (the Way); the Indian one is called Dharma (the Path); and Judaism speaks of halacha, walking or progressing on the road. Therefore, Passover is only the beginning of the process, the road to Redemption, taking us out of Egypt but only as far as the arid desert. We count seven weeks paralleling the seven sabbatical years leading up to the Jubilee. But Shavuot — with its vision of Israel rooted on her land, bringing first fruits to the Holy Temple, welcoming even the Moabite Ruth into the Jewish people as the ultimate achievement of universal redemption — is called the Festival of Weeks after the process that will get us there, overseeing the development from half-baked dough to the fully risen loaves.

During the last five thousand years, the endgame, the actual Redemption, has eluded us — but that is hardly the real point. It is the weeks of preparation from Passover to Shavuot, the arduous expectation and the paving of the way, which makes the Weeks the significant piece.

That is the true meaning behind the Song of Songs. Love is not the act of conquest, the achievement of unity; it is the search for unity, and the closeness it engenders between the two lovers, not the obliteration of one into the other, which absolute unity suggests. And so the truest commandment is not to effectuate the Messianic Age, but rather that we await its arrival and prepare the road for its coming.

This preparation for the Messiah was the most important aspect of the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. He taught the necessity of preparing ourselves for the coming of the Messiah, rather than the identification of who it may be. Along those lines, the State of Israel is not identified as the realization of Redemption, not even to the most ardent religious Zionist; it is merely the “beginning of the sprouting of the Redemption,” a work-in-progress which will hopefully pave the way towards our worthiness to be redeemed.

A talmid hacham, the Hebrew phrase for a Talmudic Scholar, does not mean a “wise individual,” rather it means a student of the wise, a good Jew who aspires to the goal of wisdom. The greater a person’s wisdom, the greater the understanding that he or she has not yet achieved complete wisdom. What counts is the aspiration; the achievement is beyond mortal humans. Hence, especially during the seder, the questions are more important than the answers. Indeed, the Haggadah classifies the Four Children by the quality — and music — of their questions. After all, in the words of Grantland Rice, “For when the one Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, he writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the game.” 

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

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