Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yom Ha’atzmaut: Longing for More than Freedom

As my wife and I looked out our back window this evening and enjoyed a substantial fireworks display showering the Judean Hills with color and light, I felt overcome with gratitude. What an incredible gift the State of Israel is, and what indescribable merit we have to live here and raise our family here.

The haunting tune to Hatikva pops into my head, and I start to sing the last line: “to be a free nation in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

They are moving, but I find them unsatisfying. The 3,500 year journey of the Jewish people was never about freedom for freedom’s sake. We always stood for greater values: to be a light to the nations, to prepare the world for the presence of God.

The miraculous nature of our unfathomable return to our homeland should not make us forget the greater purpose of the Land of Israel. Rabbi Judah HaLevi in his seminal work The Kuzari uses the metaphor of a grapevine and vineyard to describe the unique nature of the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.

The grapevine represents the people of Israel, a unique nation with spiritual gifts to contribute to the world. The vineyard is the Land of Israel, and is the only ground that can fully actualize the potential of these grapes. True, we can survive in a hothouse, i.e., exile, but we can never fully actualize our spiritual potential there. We can never be truly close to Hashem in exile.

As I sit on the hilltop of my ancestors this evening, I can’t help but feel that this gift of freedom given to the Jewish people after 2,000 years must have a greater purpose. There are many free nations in the world, but we must look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a nation, and ask, now that we are planted back in our home soil: what are the real crops that we should produce and give to the world? According to our tradition, the fruits of our labor must focus on bringing us and the world truly closer to Hashem.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Contemplating Hashem with Wonder

The midrash states in the name of Rabbi Nechemia that just as Moshe acted towards Hashem with temimut (naiveté or simplicity) so too Hashem acted towards Moshe with temimut. From where do we see this? From the story of the burning bush, where Moshe asks, “Why does this bush not burn up?” Hashem then calls out from the bush, “it is because my presence is found within it” (Vayikra Rabbah, Parshat Shmini, Chapter 11).

I heard an explanation of this midrash as follows: Moshe’s question is almost childlike, filled with a state of wonder and innocence. “How can this be?” he asks simply. Hashem answers Moshe’s question: “It is not consumed because I am in it.”

I can imagine a similar unassuming exchange between a parent and a curious child.
“Abba, what makes an ant move?”
“Hashem gives him his life just like Hashem gives life to you and me.”

Though the exchange is one of innocence and simplicity, it resonates with tremendous preciousness and depth. The notion that Hashem is the One who fills all of existence, and Hashem is constantly bestowing life on all of creation is a matter of tremendous complexity. The philosophical issues surrounding such statements, and the understanding of how such a relationship occurs has fascinated sages throughout the centuries, and has filled libraries with its discussion.

Yet simple words can fill us with a deep consciousness beyond the level of logic and complexity. At the most basic level there is nothing other than Hashem. As important as it is to understand the depth of that statement with the intellectual abilities that Hashem has granted us, it is equally important to contemplate with childlike simplicity that Hashem simply is.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Sefirat HaOmer: Counting Up to Mt. Sinai

The first evening after the Seder Night, the Torah presents us with the following mitzvah:

“And you should count for yourselves from the day after Passover, from the day that you will bring the barley offering (omer in Hebrew), count seven complete weeks, until after the seventh week, count fifty days” (Vayikra 23:15).

From this passage we learn two mitzvot: the first is the priestly obligation to bring a special barley offering in the Temple each evening beginning from the sixteenth of the month of Nissan for fifty consecutive days, until the holiday of Shavuot.

The second is a seemingly bizarre mitzvah, called Sefirat HaOmer, or the Counting of the Barley Offering. Every Jew is told to count each day that the barley offering is consumed on the Temple altar. Even though we have no Temple to offer sacrifices today, we still count at the end of the evening prayer service, along with a special blessing made in conjunction with the counting, till Shavuot fifty days later.

The meaning behind this mitzvah of counting is not revealed in the passage. One midrash (quoted in a respona of the Rashbah) explains it as follows:

“When Moses told the Nation of Israel that they were going to serve Hashem on Mount Sinai, the Nation responded, ‘Moses our Teacher, when is this going to happen?’ He answered them, ‘Fifty days from now.’ Afterwards, each person counted the days to himself (until the time of serving Hashem at Mount Sinai). Therefore, the Sages set as a custom that each Jew should count the fifty days for himself.”

The midrash illustrates the great longing that the Nation felt after being told of the opportunity to serve Hashem. There was a deep anticipation, almost an obsession, with Mount Sinai, so much so that every day their longing grew stronger and stronger.

As we count the omer each evening, we also can experience this sense of longing. The anticipation for our personal receiving of the Torah on Shavuot can inspire our daily rituals, and motivate new goals in personal and character growth. These days leading up to Shavuot are auspicious times for this type of work, and we should attempt to maximize them with focus and excitement.