Q & A: Sefira Sadness, Prayer Efficacy, Meaning of Goy

Questions and answers that are pertinent to this time of year and to any time in our lives.

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Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple,

 Raymond Apple
Raymond Apple

Q. Why do most people regard the Omer period as a time of sadness?


A. Many times in Jewish history it was a time of tragedy. The classical tragedy was during the Bar Kochba rebellion in about 135-138 CE, when an epidemic decimated the students of Rabbi Akiva, who were part of the Bar Kochba campaign. The generally accepted statistic is that 24,000 students died, though there are other versions of the numbers involved.

Other events at this time of year range from the attack of Amalek in the wilderness to the Chmielnicki massacres in Eastern Europe in 1648-49.

No wonder that we associate this period with tragedy. Yet there is also good reason to find reasons for gratitude at this season, ranging from the redemption from Egypt at the beginning of the Omer period to the Giving of the Torah as the seven weeks of the Omer reach their culmination.

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Q. If I ask God for something, does this mean that I want Him to change His mind? Can God change His mind?

A. The question was asked by Joseph Albo in the 15th century. His formulation was, “If God has decided to benefit a person, there is surely no need for prayer. If He has not decided to benefit that person, how can prayer change His mind?” (Ikkarim 4:18).

Let me offer four possible answers:

1. Albo’s own answer: prayer does not change God’s mind. It changes man. Man becomes a different person, for whom a different determination is possible.
2. The answer of Yitzchak Arama: prayer is not meant to affect the Divine will, but to make oneself capable of accepting His will (Akedat Yitzchak 58).
3. The answer of Rav Kook: “When one’s intention is to request something in prayer, one must make sure that the intention (kavvanah) is to remove evil and darkness from the world and increase goodness and light, the fullness of the Divine light, so that when it manifests itself, it will not merely fill a particular lack alone but supply all lacks and repair all flaws whatsoever”.
4. The answer of Eliezer Berkovits: one should not pray for a miracle to change the course of nature; nonetheless, God retains His freedom of action and if He decides to work a miracle, miracles are not only possible but (Pir’kei Avot 5:9) provided for from the time of Creation.

Q. Today goy means a non-Jew, but isn’t it true that in the Bible it means a Jew?

A. The word means “nation” or “people”. In Biblical Hebrew it applies both to Jews and gentiles. “The nations of the earth” are goyei ha’aretz (Gen. 18:18). The Israelites are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” - mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh (Ex. 19:6). Israel is “a unique nation on the earth” – goy echad ba’aretz (I Chron. 17:1).
However, quite often the word means a non-Israelite group. Hagoyim asher s’vivotechem are “the nations that surround you” (Lev. 25:44). Chukkot hagoy are “the (pagan) customs of the gentile” (Lev. 20:23; II Kings 17:8). Gradually, therefore, the word came to denote “them”, not “us”.