Independence Day, Jerusalem Day, and Sefirat HaOmer
Dedicated to the memory of
R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai
1. The Omer, Joy or Judgment?
2. Redefining ‘Din’
3. The Passivity of Passover
4. The Activity of The Omer
5. Modern Israel and Sefirat HaOmer
The Omer, Joy or Judgment?
Both Independence Day and Jerusalem Day fall during the seven week period of the counting of the Omer. This, at first glance, seems astonishing. The days of the Omer are seen as days of Divine Judgment, or ‘din’, during which, due to the death of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, we observe customs of semi-mourning. How is it, then, that during this, the very period of G-d’s din, we have been witness to such days of joy?
Redefining ‘Din'( Judgement)
In order to answer such a question it’s necessary for us to take a closer look at the Hebrew word ‘din’. We tend to associate G-d’s din with Divine punishment, pointing to it as the source of those difficulties which face us in our day to day lives. This, though, is far from accurate. Perhaps the best way to understand G-d’s din is by contrasting it with His hesed, for G-d’s hesed is the exact opposite of His din.
In creating the world G-d acted with complete loving-kindness, or ‘hesed’, as it is written: “The world, through hesed will be created”. Judaism defines an act of hesed as one which is played out by the giver alone. In creating the world, G-d was the only ‘giver’, for nothing else existed. He acted in a completely altruistic manner, and we therefore say that the world was created through G-d’s hesed. Creation, in other words was a gift, not a reward. Man was not deemed worthy of being created.
What’s more, the loving-kindness, which was so essential in G-d’s creating our world, lives on in creation. Hesed continues to be the ingredient which supports and sustains our world. G-d, to a large degree, continues to be ‘the giver’, demanding very little of man.
Our sages tell us, though, that in the future there will be a gradual shift away from G-d as a giver to G-d as a judge. G-d’s hesed will give way to His din. This doesn’t mean that the world will be destroyed, heaven forbid. What it implies is that, man, who had up until now played the role of receiver, benefiting from G-d’s loving-kindness, will ‘come of age’, as it were. He will be held more accountable for his behavior, and the repercussions of his actions will be more apparent under the scrutiny of G-d’s Judgment.
Perhaps this is the reason that din has received such a bad name. We associate it with punishment because it demands so much of us. True, for the time being G-d’s hesed is essential to our existence: If G-d were to run the world solely according to man’s actions the world would have collapsed a long time ago. In reality, though, if man desired to meet the challenge and utilize his full potential in worshiping his Creator, there’s no reason why the world should not be run according to G-d’s din. This, our tradition tells us, is just the sort of existence which awaits us in the future. There will come a time when Divine Justice will be fitting for man, and man will rise to meet the challenge.
When we say, then, that the days of the Omer are days of din, we don’t mean that this is a period of difficulty. What we’re dealing with here is a period during which things are dependent upon us. The ball is our hands, so to speak. If we are negligent of our moral responsibilities and continue to rely on the G-d’s good will, things will be tough. If, on the other hand, in rising to fulfill our obligations, we show a willingness to bear the full responsibility of our actions, we will, no doubt, bring a blessing on all of creation.
The Passivity of Passover
Passover, though, is the complete opposite. What’s more, you might even say that the Omer is to Pesach what din is to hesed. The miraculous Exodus from Egypt and all that it involved found the Children of Israel almost completely passive.
“No one” says G-d to the Israelites, before striking the Egyptians’ first-born “is allowed to leave his house until the morning”, as if to say: “all of you stay right where you are, don’t get involved!”. “And G-d passed over striking the Egyptians”- a completely divine act. (Even the matzah which we eat on Pesah reflects this aspect of the holiday. The baking of matzah involves practically no effort on the part of man. One simply mixes flour and water.)
On that, the first Seder Night in history, God didn’t inquire into the worthiness of the nation, neither did he make any special demands of its members. The Exodus was an example of G-d’s hesed, par excellence.
The Activity of the Omer
With the passing of the first day of Pesah, the initial hesed begins to abate. More and more does the attribute of G-d’s judgment become apparent. In other words, as explained above, man enters the picture.
Concerning the 49-day counting of the Omer, or Sefirat HaOmer, which begins on the second day of Pesah and continues until Shavuot, the Torah commands us to “count for yourselves”. Our sages explain that by emphasizing that we do it for ourselves, the Torah is indicating that it’s actually for our own good. We benefit from this counting.
When things are given over to man, he starts small and then slowly works his way up. So too, Sefirat HaOmer is a developmental process. For example, on the sixteenth of Nissan, the second day of Pesah, a special wave-offering was brought to the Holy Temple. This was the Omer offering and it consisted of a sheaf of barley, a grain which is traditionally used for the feeding of animals. Seven weeks later, on Shavuot, with the completion of the Omer-counting period, a different sort of offering was brought, this time consisting of two loaves of leavened bread – food fit for man.
Wheat, though, is more than merely food-fit-for-man. In the Talmud, one of our sages voices his opinion that the tree-of-knowledge actually bore wheat! Wheat is equivalent to knowledge , and knowledge is what distinguishes man from the other animals. For this reason, on Shavuot, with the conclusion of Sefirat HaOmer, we bring a wheat offering. We have reached the level of man.
Sefirat HaOmer, then, is a period of growth and development. On Pesah G-d’s hesed reigns supreme. Immediately afterwards, at the beginning of the Omer, man takes things into his own hands, yet brings an offering fit for an animal. At its conclusion he brings fresh loaves of leavened bread: the fruit of man’s labor, and fit for a man.
So, now we see G-d’s din in a new light, and we understand why the period of Sefirat HaOmer is associated with this din. The din of the Omer means man taking action and reaching his full human potential through a process of growth.
Modern Israel and Sefirat HaOmer
When, after forty years of wandering in the desert, the Children of Israel finally entered the Holy Land, the manna ceased to fall from the sky on the day after Pesah. The manna had been a gift from heaven. It had miraculously nourished the Israelites throughout their wanderings, but when the hesed of the first day of Pesah finished, the provision of manna, which was also an expression of G-d’s loving-kindness, did, too. Thereafter, says the Torah, “they ate from the fruits of the land”. For the young Nation of Israel, entering the Holy Land meant engaging in a fierce military struggle. It meant parting with the manna which had fallen from heaven, and working the soil by the sweat of one’s brow. It comes as no surprise, then, that these events took place during Sefirat HaOmer.
The redemption, or geula, of the Jewish People which we are all witness to today, is also characterized by human action- war and conflict. Geula isn’t a gift from heaven. It’s more like a reward, and as such demands effort on the part of man. For this reason Independence Day and Jerusalem day, the fruits of our national struggle, fall most appropriately during Sefirat HaOmer. It is no coincidence that these monumental events have befallen the Jewish People during this time of the year, for the days of the Omer, as we have said, are days of Divine Judgment.