Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Former Central Shaliach of Bnei Akiva North America
On the Sefira, Independence and Education
“…And why did the Israelites merit to inherit the land of Israel? You must say it is because the merit of Sefirat Ha’omer… therefore Moshe commands Bnei Yisrael the following: “When you enter the Land that I am giving to you, and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the Cohain” (Midrash Rabba, Vayikra 28).
We have merited in our generation to behold the reacquiring of Eretz Yisrael during the period of Sefirat Ha’omer. Interestingly enough, the days on which we celebrate our new redemption, Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, those two holy festivals, both occur during Sefirat Ha’omer, precisely as Chazal implied in the Midrash above. What is this special virtue of Sefirat Ha’omer that empowers us to inherit our homeland?
Sefirat Ha’omer connects Pesach to Shavuot; it lies between our Festival of physical redemption (Pesach) and our Festival of spiritual redemption (Shavuot) – the climax of this process. One would suppose that the spiritual level we should experience on Shavuot would be superior to the spiritual level of Pesach. The special Mitzvot of Shavuot, however, do not reflect this expected level. The pinnacle of Shavuot (at least in the time of Beit Hamikdash) was the offering of the two loaves of bread : “You shall bring out of your dwellings two wave-loaves…they shall be of fine flour, they shall be baked with leaven…”. This offering of Shavuot is the only public offering that may be and should be made of leavened bread .
The Holy Zohar questions this issue (Vol II 183a):”On Pesach the Children of Israel ran away from the leavened bread to portray the glory of the Matza. Now, on Shavuot, when the Children of Israel have merited receiving the heavenly bread, the manna, isn’t it even more appropriate to abolish the chametz, totally without any reminder of it? Why, therefore, is the offering of Shavuot is made of chametz?”. Why is it that at this very moment of the spiritual climax, on Shavuot, we bring this chametz as an offering?
The battle against the chametz which we wage on Pesach, symbolizes the battle against our evil inclination, since the evil inclination is compared to the “yeast in the dough” (berachot 17a). This is a two-phased combat, which starts with a direct attack against chametz but ends with elevating this very same chametz on the altar on Shavuot. The Zohar above provides us with a vivid parable as follows: “There was a king who had an only child who got ill. One day, this child had an uncontrollable desire to eat. Said the doctors to his father: let him eat only this specific healthy food, and until he will be well, there should not be any other food at your home. Since this child has been eating this healthy food, said the doctors, from now on, he can eat whatever he desires and he will not be harmed”.
At the beginning of the struggle with our evil inclination we must get rid of each and every crumb of chametz. Every secular influence should be eliminated. But that’s not the end of the story. This is only the first stage of weaning ourselves from our faults. The real freedom will be accomplished only on Shavuot. Only when we will reach the level where we no longer have to fear the Yetzer Hara, but, rather, find the capability to control and sanctify those secular aspects of life on the altar, only then will we be free. The victory over the Yetzer Hara cannot be accomplished by seclusion, by totally avoiding the secular influences of life, but rather by openness, by controlling those influences. On this very day, the evil inclination is sanctified, as Chazal taught us: “בכל לבבך – WITH ALL YOUR HEART” MEANS WITH YOUR TWO IMPULSES, THE EVIL IMPULSE AS WELL AS THE GOOD IMPULSE” (Mishnah, berachot 9:5).
This process is one of the foundations of עבודת ה'. Only by making the distinction between the sacred and the secular, on the Havdala at the beginning of the week, we can make Kiddush at the end of the week, by sanctifying and elevating the secular realm. Without realizing the fundamental distinction between chametz and Matza, between the Holy and the secular, body and soul, there is no chance to harmonize or synthesize them.
This transition which we are going through on Sefirat Ha’omer, is exactly the transition between the Torah of the Galut to the Torah of Eretz Yisrael. The Torah of the Galut is the Torah of seclusion, a minimized Torah: “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of Halachah alone”. The Judaism of the Galut was highly connected to holiness, but mostly detached from the normal and natural aspects of life. An inherent part of our national revival process is the restoration of our normal and natural skills as a nation.
Rav Kook clearly and specifically described this process in Orot Hatechiya 30:” The Judaism of the past, from Egypt until now, is a long battle against nature, against the ugly side of nature; and nature succumbed to us. The worlds become fragrant. At the very depth of nature is a growing demand for holiness and purity, for spiritual delicacy and purification of life …We are all drawing closer to nature, which is also drawing nearer to us. It is being defeated by us; its demands match our demands, which are noble because they stem from holiness. The young spirit that is imprinted on the Land, its language, its freedom, its honor, its literature, its strength, its possessions and feelings, all flow through nature, which is, at its very heart, imbued with holy fire…”.
In order to return to our Homeland, we have to restore the original nature of Judaism, the Torah of Eretz Yisrael. We have to practice a life of Torah V’Avodah, Torah which can encompass all areas of life and even uplift the chametz by offering it as a sacrifice to Hashem on the altar. In that sense, Sefirat Haomer is the best spiritual process to practice the real Torah – the Torah of Eretz Yisrael.