The First Flowering of Redemption

We must remain eternally grateful for the initial signs of freedom and the Divine promise that we will ultimately attain it - witness our Passover celebration; and we must even take heed of, and even celebrate, our days of preparation for the eventual redemption, and attempt to purify ourselves for that eventuality religiously and politically.

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
I write these lines the morning before the advent of the final day of the Passover holiday, during the period of the count of the omer between Passover and Shavuot, and after having spent a sleepless night because of the horrific suicide-bomber attack in Tel Aviv, which has thus far claimed nine innocent lives. How can I square the headlines of the daily paper with our festival of freedom?

And if indeed the days between Passover and Shavuot are a kind of hol hamoed (intermediate days of a festival) between our Festival of Freedom and our Festival of First Fruits celebrated in Jerusalem, how can I rejoice on Israeli Independence Day with the national threat of an escalation of suicide bombings and the existential-international threat of a nuclear Iran looming in the background?

In order to begin to understand the message and the meaning of our Hebrew calendar, we must first query the significance of matzah - the crumbly, half-baked and unfinished, tasteless and flat poor cousin to the fresh and full-flavored pumpernickel - as well as the curious lack of a name for the festival of Shavuot. The "feast of weeks" seems hardly appropriate, since it connotes the period leading up to the festival, rather than the day of the festival itself.

There are many commentaries who see the word matzot (plural of matzah, one piece of unleavened bread) as being identical with the word mitzvot (plural of mitzvah, a Divine command), since the same Hebrew letters can spell out either of these two words; and then, conversely, hametz must be identified with sin or transgression. However, how does this fit into the fact that on the festival of Shavuot - the climax of Pesach, if we think of the omer count as linking them together - we must bring two loaves of bread, specifically hametz and not matzah, as our major Temple offering?

When we remember that the very first Passover Seder took place on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan, before midnight, before the slaughtering of the Egyptian first-born by G-d, and while the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt (see Exodus 12), we realize that Passover cannot possibly be our Festival of Freedom; at best, it can only be the festival of our expectation of freedom, of G-d's promise that we will be freed, of only the first, incipient signs of our freedom. Indeed, even after we left Egypt the next morning, we only got as far as the torrid-by-day, freezing-by-night, waterless and stateless desert - and we had not even received our Torah!

For the actual achievement of freedom, we would have to await the Festival of Shavuot, the day of the Revelation at Sinai, and the time when we could celebrate the beloved first fruits of our Israeli produce brought to our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. This period of true freedom and redemption remains elusive to this very day; perhaps that's why Shavuot has not yet acquired a name of its own.

Nevertheless, we are commanded to count the days between Passover and Shavuot (Lev. 23:15), just as we are commanded to count the years between the Sabbatical years and the fiftieth jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8-12): in both instances, the march from redemption promised to redemption realized. And the Hebrew word for "counting" is sefirah, the very word used in the Biblical portion wherein a ritually impure woman is commanded to count the seven days leading to her purification. The root noun of sefirah is sapir, the blue-white color identified with the Divine purity and revelation emerging from the ethereal heavens (Exodus 24:10), and which has therefore become the symbol of the Divine commandments (through our blue-white ritual fringes) and of the flag of the modern State of Israel.

The message which lies herein is indubitably clear: we must remain eternally grateful for the initial signs of freedom and the Divine promise that we will ultimately attain it - witness our Passover celebration; and we must even take heed of, and even celebrate, our days of preparation for the eventual redemption, and attempt to purify ourselves for that eventuality religiously and politically.

And so, we count the days between Passover and Shavuot, even though Shavuot remains fixed as a time not yet realized, but as a goal very much worthy of striving towards. We link our Passover Seder to our vision of redemption by expounding the passage of the Bible recited by the Jew bringing his first fruits to the Holy Temple altar in Jerusalem, "Arami oved avi...." (Haggadah). And we revel in the fact that both Israeli Independence Day and Jerusalem Day come out during the sefirah count between Passover and Shavuot, certainly as a sign that the achievement of our goal is closer than it has been for more than 2,000 years.

It is also fascinating that although the Mishna (Pesahim 10) ordains that we recite "Arami oved avi" (Deuteronomy 26:1-11) until its conclusion, the Haggadah deletes the last three verses: "'And He brought us to this place and He gave us this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land which You have given me, oh Lord.' And you shall place it before the Lord your G-d and you shall bow down before the Lord your G-d. And you shall rejoice for all the good the Lord your G-d has given you and your household, you and the Levite and the stranger who is within your midst."

In my celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut at home, at the "traditional" barbecue I enjoy with my family, I precede my blessing over wine with a recitation of the Biblical chapter of the dry bones that come to life (Ezekiel 37), followed by a recitation of these last three verses deleted by the Haggadah; these words serve as a confirmation of G-d's having brought us back to our homeland, as a statement of hope and faith that we may soon see the restoration of the first fruits ceremony at the Holy Temple, and as a prayer of thanksgiving for what our generation has been privileged to receive - despite the external and internal dangers which still face us.

Redemption is a process, and the Dayenu song must teach us to be grateful for the advances we have achieved, rather than disappointed because of that which still remains to be accomplished. And in the final analysis, the sefirah count tells us that the achievement of the final vision depends a great deal on our own self-purification.




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