Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free
We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.
Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.
Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:
“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.
“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.
“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”
A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.
So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.
One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.
A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.
Learning to fall teaches us to fly
“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”
Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.
This Rashi is problematic:
Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?
Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.
But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?
Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.
One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.
Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!
Seeing the big, beautiful picture
This week’s fundraising campaign for Community Security Organisation Medical in Cape Town and Hatzolah in Johannesburg beautifully replaces our obsession with daily infection statistics, hospital occupancies, and rates of transmission with awareness of (and gratitude for) the number of lives saved, families cared for, and thousands vaccinated in protection against the virus.
However, once you’ve made your generous contribution, that nagging feeling comes back: how many deaths in our community this year? What are the global and local statistics of antisemitism and crime? How bad is emigration from South Africa? Are there any young people excited about future – or even present – Jewish life in South Africa?
How are the numbers?
Well, it depends on what you’re counting.
The short-term vision created by the numbers gives us valuable data that should inform our long-term planning and community development strategies to ensure that we mitigate against the possible consequences of those realities, and more critically, reverse those trends.
Built into our spiritual and collective national DNA however, is the ability to see, act upon, and live with the vision of a far greater picture.
What’s that vision?
“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.” This is the message of the Shabbos before (and that blesses the week of) Rosh Hashanah.
Close to 1 000 years ago, Rashi unpacked for us in this verse a powerful message that speaks to us today, not only as a legacy from our ancestors three millennia ago, and more than just by virtue of our souls’ presence there. No. It’s way beyond that.
Today, in September 2021, as you read this Torah article in the SA Jewish Report, you are standing, joined by the hundreds of millions of Jews in each and every generation before, the hundreds of thousands of our brethren who lived in South Africa, as well as every generation that’s yet to materialise – “before Hashem your G-d”.
“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.”
When we live a life aligned to the infinite wisdom of Torah, the atomic power of each mitzvah, and the unconditional unity of our entire nation across the borders of times, space, and social class, then we can be confident in our future.
The numbers are great.
And we are assured of a sweet New Year with an abundance of revealed goodness for all of us.
Prostrating before the King of King of Kings
There is a three-word phrase in our formal prayers that conveys the essence of Judaism.
Being such a powerful phrase, it features appropriately in every formal prayer service, as well as in the highpoint of the prayers of the high holidays.
The phrase forms part of the Aleinu prayer, composed by Joshua ben Nun upon entering the holy land. In the Aleinu prayer, we declare our indebtedness to G-d for having given us a unique relationship with Him, “and we bow, prostrate, and express our appreciation before Melech Malchei haMelachim, the Holy One, blessed be He”.
The phrase “Melech Malchai haMelachim”, which means “The King of King of Kings” contains the key to understanding what being Jewish is all about.
Who are these three sets of kings?
The first king is obvious. It’s G-d. G-d is the king of the universe – Melech haOlam as we refer to Him in all our formal blessings. The world is G-d’s. He has the power. He calls the shots. He is its king.
The second reference to kings must refer to a group of people who also have power, who also call the shots. But if G-d is king, how can that be? The answer must be that G-d is a very special king – a king that chooses to share his kingship and confer his royal power on others, empowering them to be rulers in their own right. G-d does call the shots. It’s just that one of the shots He calls is to call on people to call the shots too.
And the third reference to kings? Who else could possibly be king other than G-d and His human co-royal partners? The third set of kings must refer to people who are unable to see themselves as being crowned by G-d, but they are willing to be crowned by people. And so it becomes the responsibility of G-d’s royal partners to take a feather from G-d’s crown and use their own crowns to empower those people and coronate them as kings as well.
This is what it means to be Jewish. The Jew recognises that G-d is king of the world. In addition, he or she recognises that G-d conferred His royal powers on a people to be royal too – “a kingdom of priests”. And ultimately, it’s the responsibility of His Jewish royal priests to confer their royal powers onto others, to empower and elevate them to their own personal kingdoms, to play their own part in taking care of the world.
Melech Malchei haMelachim – the King of Kings of Kings. Quite possibly the most profound three Jewish words of all. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a single official translation that translates them accurately. The message seems to have been lost in translation.
Our task over the high holidays in particular, and at every formal prayer service in general, is to correctly translate these three words, not only into English, but into our lives as well, and thereby accomplish our majestic mission as Jews.
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