In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, the entire Jewish nation finds themselves counting, as the Torah commands us with the mitzvah of S’firat Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer. The Torah tells us, U’sfartem lachem mimacharat haShabbat, “on the day after Pesach begins, you shall count for yourselves,” sheva Shabbatot t’mimot t’hiyena, “seven complete weeks you shall have.” In other words, everyone has the mitzvah to count the seven weeks from Passover until Shavuot.
When something is truly exciting, you count every single day leading up to it with great anticipation--as I did when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah. But what is so special and exciting that causes the Torah to command us to count every day between Pesach and Shavuot?
The answer is that when B’nei Yisroel left Egypt, it took seven weeks for them to arrive at Har Sinai, where they received the Torah. This journey was not only a physical one, but a spiritual one as well. When we left Egypt, we were slaves; only once we arrived at Har Sinai did we experience true freedom. It was during those seven weeks that the Jewish people ascended the spiritual ladder that enabled them to be worthy of receiving the Torah on Shavuot. Since Matan Torah was the greatest event that took place in all of Jewish history, we continue the mitzvah today, as we joyfully count each day leading up to it with great excitement and anticipation.
In fact, yesterday, we counted 33 days of the Omer. This day has particular significance because of another historic event that took place during this time of year. The Gemara in the Tractate of Yevamot, page 62b, tells the story of the great Rabbi Akiva who led an enormous yeshiva filled with many learned young men. Once, a terrible disease plagued his school, and was claiming the lives of thousands of his students. After 33 tragic days, wherein 24,000 students died, the epidemic suddenly ended. This day happened to correspond with Day 33 of the Omer--also known as Lag B’Omer--which we joyously celebrated yesterday.
However, you have to wonder: If these were such great scholars, what could they have done that would have caused them to suffer such a terrible epidemic? The answer given by the Talmud is that they died Shelo nahagu kavod zeh lazeh, “because they did not show proper respect to one another.” In fact, if you look closely at the Gemara, you’ll see that it records the number of students that passed away not as 24,000 individuals, but as 12,000 pairs. Why?
Perhaps we can suggest that the entire reason for the epidemic was due to a lack of partnership between them and their friends. This teaches us that it is not enough to receive and study the Torah; we have to live it, treating all people according to the Torah’s laws.
We see from this that the mitzvoth of the Torah are not there to burden us, but to teach us how to live a proper life full of meaning. Therefore, when we count the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the mitzvah is there for us, for our own sake. Perhaps that is why the Torah commands us u'sfartem lachem--to count it for ourselves.
In Israel this week, we will read the portions of Achrei Mot/Kedoshim, but I want to share a thought on Tazria/Metzora, the portions being read this week in the United States and everywhere outside of Israel. The parshiyot of Tazria and Metzora, as reflected by their names, deal primarily with the laws of the metzorah, one who is afflicted with the spiritual disease of tzara’at. It was possible to find signs of tzara’at on one’s body, one’s clothing, or one’s home.
On the topic of finding tzara’at in one’s home, the Torah states: "And he who owns the house shall come and tell the Cohen, saying, 'It seems to me as if there is a plague in the house'" (Leviticus 14:35).
Why does the Torah tell us that the owner should say, "It seems to me there is tzara’at," rather than, "there is tzara'at?”
Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz notes that there is very little difference between "it is" and "it appears as if." In either event, it depends upon a Cohen to come and make the determination of whether or not the house is afflicted with tzara'at. However, the Torah is teaching us a practical lesson on how we should speak.
People think that everything they say is correct, but we all too often make mistakes because of wrong information or faulty perception. By recognizing this reality about ourselves and then prefacing our statements with, "it seems to me," it is easier to concede that someone else is correct. Also, it makes it easier for others to agree with you. It facilitates communication and finding truth.
As we commemorated Yom Hazikron and Yom Ha’atzmaut this week, we witnessed the beauty of being Jewish and being in Eretz Yisrael. With our own eyes, we saw the sadness before the celebration, the sorrow before the joy, and recognized the sacrifices of those who have given their lives for the sake of our people and our land. It has been an experience that neither I nor our 8th graders will ever forget.
We witnessed unity both in the mourning and in the celebration, and through it all, we recognized that--regardless of our personal views--we are bound together as one people, with one land, through our history and mesorah.
Most people don't have any trouble being concerned about their own wants and needs. When we're hungry, we eat. When we're tired, we rest. But when it comes to the wants and needs of other people, the feeling may not come so easily.
This means that we should try to become so loving and sensitive to the people around us that we care just as deeply, just as naturally, about fulfilling their needs as we do about fulfilling our own. When we do, we will find ourselves able to give of ourselves more and more in order to help them. The Torah is informing us that deep down, we are really all connected. Living with this awareness brings a lot of love into the world--and into our lives.
When we commemorated Yom Hazikaron in Israel, we heard the stories of six people who lost their lives while defending the State of Israel: four soldiers, one medic and one civilian. These individuals--as told to us by their family, friends and colleagues--exemplified the essence of giving. They gave of themselves daily until they made the ultimate sacrifice simply because they were Jewish and defending the Land of Israel.
We discussed the need to learn a lesson from these brave men and women in how to conduct our daily lives, understanding that--as we learn from this week's parasha--we are all connected; and that strengthening that connection brings greater love into our lives.
The love our students already had for the Land of Israel and the Jewish people was strengthened by every step we took and every experience we had in Eretz Yisrael.
This week's parsha, Shemini, contains the halfway point of all the words in the Torah. This halfway mark (there is literally a mark in many Chumashim) comes after the word darosh and before the word daraysh, two words whose roots both mean "to inquire." (Together, these words are translated as "inquired insistently.") Degel Machaneh Ephraim suggests that this teaches us that Torah learning should be focused on asking questions and deepening our understanding through the vehicle of inquiry.
Of course, asking questions is critical to any learning environment, and particularly to schools. Think of the number of expressions in the English lexicon regarding asking questions:
One of my personal favorites is Voltaire's opinion that we should "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers."
All of these quotes rightly support and encourage the asking of questions as a learning tool without parallel. And of course, this is exactly the lesson the Torah attempts to teach us.
Some of the very best features of the AJA Upper School are in place because students and teachers asked great questions. The question, "How can we teach a really unique set of classes while also learning the core of an excellent education?" led to the formation of our minimester program. The question, "How can we acquire more current novels of interest?" resulted in a student-run and student-supplied portion of our library. The question, "How can every student have an opportunity to speak in front of the school about a passion?" was answered with Senior Talks.
May we all be blessed with children who ask excellent and plentiful questions.