Counting The Omer - Then and Today

The writer brings a 'systems analysis' of the Omer period and some thoughts for today.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Hirsch

Judaism Aryeh Hirsch
Aryeh Hirsch

“ Hakol, Hakol Tzarich lihyot metukan”- All, Everything must be made whole. All must be purified (metohar). The longings of the Nation of Israel for the rebuilding of the nation, for the Return to Zion, is the longing of full depth of Good that penetrates each man to his very roots”( Rav Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, Orot, 10; 26).

“When our Rabbis entered to the Kerem B’Yavneh, the ‘vineyard’ in Yavneh, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Elazar ben Yossi and Rabbi Shimon (bar Yochai) were in attendance…..

"Once, R. Yehuda, R. Yossi and R. Shimon were sitting there, with Yehuda the son of Gerim. R. Yehuda opened the discussion: ‘How praiseworthy are the deeds of the Romans: they’ve established markets, bridges and bathhouses’. R. Yossi said not a word.

R. Shimon answered him:’ All that the Romans have done, they’ve done only for their own base interests: the marketplaces were not set up to promote commerce and the common good, but to quarter harlots therein; the bathhouses are intended for orgies, to weaken people’s character and render them seekers of luxury. And the bridges are not to promote commerce and communication, but to levy even more taxes, to tread on Rome’s worldwide victims’.

Yehuda ben Gerim told others of the conversation, and as a result the Romans heard of his words and R. Shimon had to run for his life. He went into hiding, in a cave, for more than thirteen years” ( Talmud Shabbos, 33a-b, with explanation by Rav Tzvi Tau, Emunat Iteinu , vol. 10- which is entirely devoted to this page of Gemara).

The eventual results of those years in the cave was, of course, Rav Shimon bar Yochai’s writing of the Zohar, the main body of teachings of Judaism’s hidden wisdom, the Kabbalah. This story and Kabbalah are the philosophical backbone of the commandment to Count the Omer Period, the 49 days between the holidays of Pesach/Passover and Shavuot. Moreover, Israel Independence Day, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, falls on the 19th day of the Omer, the 5th of Iyar.

Examination of the story of the Chachamim, the Rabbis who entered the “Vineyard of Yavneh”, provides deep insight into the forces in play in the Israel of 1948, and the Israel of today:

Rav Tau begins with explanation of the curious stress in the Gemara, that the seating arrangement of the exiled Sanhedrin in Yavneh, was in the shape of a vineyard. It was not so by chance, but with the intention to stress that this was a Court/Yeshiva of exile, not at all like that of Jerusalem.

Says the Talmud in Sanhedrin (Mishna, 36b):
“The Sanhedrin was seated in the shape of a half-circular threshing-floor (i.e. a semicircle), so that the judges could see each other “ while they discussed a case. Rashi says that had they been seated in rows, as they were in Yavneh, those at the head of the row would not have been able to see those at the end. Moreover, a full circle would have been preferable to a semicircle, except for the technicality that the litigants and witnesses had to face the judges, so that the judges could judge their faces and body language as they talked; but in a full circle, some judges would have seen only the litigants backs."

"Rav Kook (Emunat Iteinu, p.11) explains that in Jerusalem, Yerushalayim (literally, the “city of wholeness and wholesomeness”, in a translation by Rav Matis Weinberg), Torah was whole, and the nation, pre-exile, was whole, possessing “Ruchniyut elyona”, an elevated level of spirituality that took interest in “the world, Life and all they contained”.

In recognition that everything is part of the Lord’s Creation, even the small and insignificant, even those who marched to a tune seemingly opposite to the One’s purpose, had a place in G-d’s Universe and His Capitol, Jerusalem. Just as when one increases the diameter of a circle, and the upper half of the circle’s circumference broadens, the circumference of the lower half of the circle broadens correspondingly, in perfect harmony.

Such was the Commonwealth of Israel and Jerusalem.

Yavneh, however, was a place of Exile. The Torah of Yavneh was a Torah of Exile. And the Sanhedrin in Yavneh was in Exile, the long exile that ended only partially in 1948. In Jerusalem, all the Chachamim sat and were absorbed in one construct, a semicircle; in Yavneh, the Chachamim sat in rows, like in a vineyard: here, each individual was recognizable as an individual, with individual character and value and power.

In Jerusalem, the Torah that influenced the Nation emanated from a united Klal, a whole, and from there reached the prat, the individual. In Exile, in Yavneh, the Torah that influenced splintered Israel emanated from the prat, the individuals in the rows, to reach the Klal, the nation- a much weakened, lower –level Torah. “Kol koach yisbalet bimyuchaduto “, every individual voice stood out in its uniqueness, and only then “yitchaber v’yitztaref l’kochot ha’acheirim”, did that voice join and unite with the others,like a vineyard comprised of the joining of row upon row.

Rav Tau stresses that the unity of Torah, even is exile, is “pnimit umahutit”, internal, essential , organic-not artificial or mechanical.

As Rav Avraham Y. Zuckerman (like R. Tau, also from Yeshivat Har HaMor; KI Ayin B’Ayin Yir’u,pages 196-210)) explains: the purpose of Torah is to unite all of the individual components of Creation into one living, harmonious organism under the leadership of the One G-d, who encompasses all. Unlike the components of a machine, a living creature is a system in which each part responds to every other part, in perfect homeostasis and harmony.

"Torah’s definition of Good is whatever adds to Existence/Creation, and helps the Life of others. Man’s actions ideally are to reflect a perfect coordination between his actions and all Life in Creation. In such a living system, responses are immediate, harmonious and “musari”, ethical (“masur”, devoted wholly to the will of the Almighty and His Creation). Just as an organic body heals itself, and loves, so all of Creation–unlike a model of Creation as a “perfect machine”( the old medieval Christian idea of G-d’s Universe as a clock).

Thus, Rav Tau stresses that there was no machloket, no argument between the three Rabbis of Yavneh, in their approach to Rome.

Rav Yehuda was the man of Halacha/psak, of practical law(Eiruvin 46b). He stressed the good of the Roman markets, bridges and bathhouses not because he didn’t see the evils that R.Shimon saw. However, R. Yehuda did not want the Nation of Israel to retreat totally into the Yeshiva, into Torah learning; his every fiber longed for the Redemption, the Geula of Israel, when markets, commerce, health systems, etc. would again be on the national agenda, and he wanted to maintain Israel’s connection to these activities.

R. Shimon was, of course, the man of G-d’s inner truth, the Kabbalah. The man whose life is celebrated two weeks after Yom Ha’Atzmaut , on the Festival of the light of the Zohar, Lag Ba’Omer, didn’t see only the evil consequences of Rome’s actions: with an eye to truth, he saw that the actions themselves were pure Evil, cleverly designed to exploit humanity and destroy their musar, ethical character.

R. Yossi” remained silent”,but only in terms of not stating his own opinion. As the Gemara makes clear in Chulin 89a, Rav Yosi is the author of most of the Talmud’s aggadic content; thus, the whole story in front of us, is his. R. Yossi is the master of what your kids learn in classes of Emuna and Machshava, Jewish thought, ideals, philosophy, etc. So he’s not quiet here at all.

He recognized the need of R. Yehuda’s opinion for the future, when, true to the promise of the G-d of Israel to his prophets, the Nation of Israel would make its comeback on the stage of history. R. Yossi also recognized that to keep Jews from becoming what Mark Twain labeled “the self-righteous Jews of Palestine “(The Innocents Abroad), they would need to learn “ that besides the worlds of Halachah and Emunah, there exists a vast, rich spiritual world elevated above most mortals’ understanding, a world chai v’kayam, alive and important beyond limit”- the world of R. Shimon bar Yochai.

Thus the three prati, individual opinions unite to form a klal, a united,living Torah, in a metaphor to a nation in exile, splintered, yet undergoing a slow, thousands-year-long process of the healing of its ailing, yet still-living, body.

It is important to note that in this “systems analysis” of the Omer Period, the Kabbalistic view of Creation and Omer is exactly that:” systems analysis”. On its simplest level, Rav Matis Weinberg explains that Kabbalah sees the sefirot/midot that comprise the Omer, as no less than the system of organization of every living system in Creation:

The 49 days of the Omer comprise seven weeks and seven sefirt: Chessed, Gevura, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, Malchut, explained below: 

The first week is the beginning, Creation, Life itself, which owes its existence to the Chessed of Hashem, the Lord’s “kindness”.

The next week, that of Gevura, denotes the separating of individuals (prat) out of the Klal, the singular Universe of Creation.

In Tiferet of the third week, we see “a universe in a grain of sand”, the Klal within every prat, and how this reflects the beauty of Truth in Creation.

Next, every living creature must have standards, found in the eternal Truths of Netzach.

These standards must be expressed in the life of a living being, and be perceptible to others; thus, in Hod the creature “comes into its glory”.

Finally,Yesod,  all living beings have a sex life; Rav Weinberg famously points out that every system of religion has problems with this fundamental component of living beings, and he notes that in contrast Judaism is not a religion in the accepted sense(Torah is instruction to make this living system work harmoniously; see Rav Zukerman above) 

Finally, all living systems must self-organize, to share and thereby achieve a peaceful cooperative called a Malchut.

Of course, systems fail. That’s the mourning (aveilut ) of the Omer period, with its history blackened by the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva, and by the Crusades. This is also why we read the Parshiot of Tazria-Metzora, dealing with ritual contamination and purification, before Yom Ha’Atzmaut:

Rav Weinberg brings the Seforno ( Leviticus 13;2) to note that the Torah’s Tzara’at (“leprosy”) is not a full-blown cancerous lesion, but “subtle lesions indicating decay just beneath the surface, the decay of the complex systems underlying the processes of life that are so delicately balanced”(pages 125-129).

Even the process of birth is addressed in the parsha, and a woman who delivers a baby is ritually impure and must bring a sin-offering which “addresses Evil itself, the decay of the intricately integrated system that had brought wholeness and wholesomeness to Eden, the decay that became endemic to all complex,dynamic systems that must nurture life” after exile from Eden .

Finally, the Aznayim L’Torah writes: when afflicted with tzara’at, a house in Israel (but not the house of a Jew in exile) must be “demolished, its stones and wood and clay”(ibid., 14;45). The Sifra says that the house must have wood, because we are dealing with a living system, and the biggest wonder is that it is not wood showing normal rot, but inanimate stones of a Jew’s house in Israel that behaves as if it were alive, mirroring the Evil decay in the house’s owner .

This is yet another proof of who the landlord is in the Holy Land, us, and no other people.

It would not be appropriate to leave the explanation of the Omer without addressing 2012.

Specifically, addressingt three people: not corresponding to our three Rabbis in the vineyard of Yavneh, but three prominent people who shape the destiny of Israel at present:

Last summer, young adults protested in tent-cities all over Israel. The issue: with rising housing costs, they can’t afford a house. Of course, they are mainly Leftists who don’t realize that in their enmity to housing in Judea and Samaria (aka the “West Bank”), they have managed to shut down housing in J&S, where housing is cheap. Shut down cheap housing, and prices rise everywhere.

The protestors managed to get the government, via the Trachtenberg commission, to give them some monetary benefits, but it came from crippling the system, robbing Peter to pay Paul. Thus, in a time when the military may be needed against Egypt and Iran, Reserves training was canceled in Spring, 2012 because there was no money for it.

One missing item is this stew is that the down-payments for houses have risen from 10%, in 2007, to 50%. This is because of Stanley Fisher, head of Bank of Israel, who is a great American economist; but not a Zionist economist. A Zionist would be building all over Israel, and lowering the down-payment rate. Fisher, however, is fighting the American subprime mortgage disaster on the wrong continent. He needs to be redirected.

Chacham #2 is Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In his animosity to Zionism and building up Eretz Yisrael, he has found his political calling. Although Rav Kook adjured us to “lifnot eileihem b’ahava”, to love even those “at the bottom of the circle”, there is no reason to make them Defense Minister. Barak must go.

Finally, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Although he hired the first two Chachamim, he is the PM. Moreover: in 1998, the chachamim from the Right decided that they were going to join the Opposition in a vote of no-confidence, confident that in toppling Bibi they’d “get a more Right-wing Knesset”. Problem was, they didn’t have a single poll showing that that would happen; and, in fact, they got one Ehud Barak as PM.

Things went from bad to worse, and they got Sharon and Disengagement. If anyone wants to know why Bibi hired Ehud Barak, it’s obvious: the PM has not forgotten the perfidy of 1998. It might behoove the Right eat a little humble-pie, say they were wrong, and try “piyus” (it even sounds like what it means, appeasement) with Bibi.

Because if the Right can’t even make peace with the Right, it’s going to be a long time before we can broaden Rav Kook’s circle.