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26 Iyar 5762 - May 8, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









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Opinion & Comment
Sefiras HaOmer and Shavuos -- Counting to Torah

by Rabbi Yosef Levinson

The period of Sefiras HaOmer is known as the time of preparation for kabolas haTorah. It is also the period of mourning for R' Akiva's talmidim. There is an aspect of sefiroh that can help us look at this yearly occurrence in a new light and also give us an appreciation of why it was during sefiroh that R' Akiva's students perished.

The Torah gives jurisdiction for the establishment of the Jewish calendar to the beis din. Even when the moon is clearly visible, if the beis din feels that there is a need, they may delay being mekadesh the new month. This in turn, affects when yom tov falls out. If, chas vesholom, the institution of beis din would cease to exist, we would not have the present calendar as established by Hillel Hasheini and there would be no way for us to determine dates to celebrate yomim tovim.

It is for this reason that we conclude the brochoh of kedushas hayom (the middle blessing of Shemoneh Esrei which describes the essence of the day) for Shabbos with the words mekadesh haShabbos, whilst on yom tov we say mekadesh Yisroel vehazmanim. The kedusha of Shabbos is an inherent feature of the seventh day, but the kedusha of yom tov is dependent on kedushas Yisroel. Therefore before we mention the kedusha of yom tov, we insert the kedushas Yisroel.

The holiday of Shavuos is an exception to this rule. The Torah states that Shavuos is celebrated 50 days after the Omer is brought, regardless of the day it falls on. It can actually fluctuate between 5 and 7 Sivan (see Rosh Hashana 6b). After the beis din sanctifies the month of Nisan, they have no further role to play in the timing of Shavuos. Even if, hypothetically speaking, the beis din should lose its authority at that time, the celebration of Shavuos would not be affected.

It thus seems that Bnei Yisroel have no role in the sanctification of Shavuos. Yet on Shavuos we also say the brochoh -- mekadesh Yisroel vehazmanim.

The Sheiltos explains:

"Lo lebeis din bilvad hu dekomizaheir Rachmono lemimni vekedushi Atsarto, elo lekulhu Yisroel. Detanya: Usefartem lochem: shetehei sefira lekol echod ve'echod (Menochos 65b)."

The commandment to count the Omer and to sanctify Shavuos was not given exclusively to the beis din; it was also given to Bnei Yisroel [directly] (Sheiltos DeRav Achai Gaon, Emor 107 as quoted by HaEmek Sheila).

Also the Ohr Somayach on Hilchos Temidim uMussafim (7:22) explains the difficult position of Rabbeinu Yeruchom that counting days is deOraisa even today, and counting weeks is deRabbonon. The Ohr Somayach says that since in counting the days we sanctify Shavuos, it is still a mitzvah deOraisa. The counting of weeks though, is related to the bringing of korbonos which is obviously dependent on the Beis Hamikdash.

There are two mitzvos of counting in the Torah -- counting the years until Yovel and counting the Omer. The Netziv (HaEmek Sheila, ibid.) states that just as the counting to Yovel sanctifies the Yovel, so too the counting of the Omer sanctifies Shavuos.

One can make a further comparison. Just as the counting and the sanctification of Yovel is incumbent upon the beis din, so too one might think that the counting and sanctification of Shavuos is also only the beis din's duty. However, the Torah states usefartem lochem. Each and every one of us has a mitzva to count and in turn each and every one of us brings about the sanctification of Shavuos.

Why is Shavuos different from the other yomim tovim? Shavuos is the anniversary of kabolas haTorah. The Torah was not only given to the Sanhedrin, it was given to the entire nation. To emphasize this point, Hashem determined that Shavuos would be sanctified only through each and every individual's acceptance of the Torah. Since this requires spiritual preparation, we were all given the mitzva of sefiroh. We must all count (the Omer) -- because we all count!

Each individual's process of counting represents his own struggle to acquire his designated portion of the Torah. He must count for himself, and cannot fulfill his obligation through someone else (we do not say shomea ke'oneh when it comes to sefiroh, see Orach Chaim 489:1; Mishna Berurah 489:5), for how can another person acquire the portion of Torah set aside especially for him?

We must all recognize that we have something unique to contribute to the Torah and without this, the rest of the nation will be missing something from the Torah. We cannot rely on others -- we must do it ourselves.

Conversely, we must also appreciate that just as we have our own portion in the Torah, which we must share with others, so too, everyone else has their portion, which we must receive from them. As the Mishna states: "Eizeh hu chochom? Halomeid mikol odom -- Who is wise? He who learns from every person" (Ovos 4:1).

The Torah is rechovo minei yom, wider than the ocean (Iyov 11:9). However knowledgeable someone might be, there is always something new we can teach or explain to him. Also however knowledgeable we are, there is always something that we can learn from others.

One person might be proficient in a certain masechta or even a seder, while someone else might know another masechta. They can offer each other assistance in grasping difficult concepts in the other masechta. One person might be more analytically inclined, while another has a very broad background. They should all share with each other and also accept from one another. But Torah is not just limited to learning.

In parshas Bamidbar the posuk states:

"Ve'eileh toldos Aharon uMoshe beyom dibeir Hashem es Moshe Behar Sinai" (Bamidbar 3:1) -- "These are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe on the day Hashem spoke with Moshe at Har Sinai."

The Torah continues with a listing of Aharon's children, but there is no mention of Moshe's offspring. Rashi's deduces from this that one who teaches his friend's son Torah is considered to have given "birth" to him.

This is truly an insightful lesson. However, this parsha seems an unusual place to teach it. Parshas Bamidbar only discusses the counting of the Bnei Yisroel. Wouldn't it be more fitting to mention this lesson which pertains to the significance of talmud Torah in a parsha which discusses many Torah laws? (e.g., Parshas Mishpotim contains all the dinim (civil laws) along with mishpotim and many more mitzvos, Parshas Tazria- Metzoroh deals with the difficult area of tumah and taharoh).

What is conveyed by teaching this lesson here in Bamidbar? The answer is that Torah infuses every aspect of life. Even a census has to be conducted in the proper manner and for the proper reasons. Moshe gave over the entire Torah to Aharon's children, yet he would be considered as a father to them for having imparted this lesson alone!

We can also see this point by observing an interesting phenomenon. Most yeshivos and mosdos HaTorah lack funds. Accordingly, the Roshei Yeshivos are forced to close their gemoras and go out to raise the necessary funds to keep their institutions afloat. Since Hashem can definitely provide for the yeshivos through other means, why does the Ribono Shel Olam want the Gedolim to go fundraising? Wouldn't their talmidim gain more from their presence in the Beis Medrash?

The following episode involving HaRav Shneur Kotler zt'l illustrates that Hashem is not merely satisfied with the talmidim one has established in the Beis Medrash. He also wants the Gedolim to go and influence new talmidim.

Once on a fundraising trip to Memphis, Tennessee, R' Shneur was advised not to bother soliciting from a certain individual who was known not to believe in tzedaka. The Rosh Yeshiva felt that in such a case he definitely wanted to meet with the person. An appointment was arranged and R' Shneur ultimately spent close to two hours with the gentleman.

During that time the man revealed that he was a Holocaust survivor. He explained that living through that terrible experience had caused him to lose his faith in G-d and mitzvos. The Rosh Yeshiva patiently explained to him that although the Holocaust was a horrific experience, it does not give us the right to question Hashem's ways. The very fact that he managed to survive where so many had perished was certainly grounds for expressing gratitude to the Creator.

When the Rosh Yeshiva got up to leave, he said that in two hours he had spent talking with this man, he could have seen several people who would have probably made very generous contributions. Instead he decided to spend this time with him in order that he should have the opportunity to acquire a portion in the world to come through the mitzva of tzedaka. The gentleman was very touched and wrote out a check for fifty dollars and thanked the Rosh Yeshiva for coming (Visions of Greatness vol. 1).

R' Shneur understood that if Hashem sent him to Memphis, he had a mission to fulfill. Whether it was offering chizuk, giving shiurim or inspiring individuals who would not otherwise have an opportunity to see gedolei Yisroel, there was a reason for his many travels. And who better to influence than someone who did not believe in giving tzedokoh. Surely Hashem would insure that the yeshiva's budget would be met!

In explaining why he had spent so much of his valuable time with this gentleman for such a small donation, the Rosh Yeshiva related an anecdote on a similar theme that happened to his father, R' Aharon Kotler zt'l.

At the onset of World War II, R' Aharon escaped across the border from Poland into Russia. Afterwards he realized that in the rush he had inadvertently left his tefillin behind. Despite the risks involved, he decided to go back and get the tefillin.

On the return trip to Russia he stopped by a small farm near the Russian border. He asked if he could stay until nightfall when it would be safer to cross the border. As it turned out, the farmer who let him in was a Jew who unfortunately knew nothing of Yiddishkeit. The farmer watched in fascination as R' Aharon davened and put on his tefillin. The Rosh Yeshiva asked if he knew anything about tefillin. The farmer answered that he had never put on tefillin. R' Aharon briefly explained what they were and the great reward in store in Olam Haba for one who wears tefillin. His host then agreed to put them on.

That night R' Aharon safely crossed the border again into Russia. Many years passed and one night the Rosh Yeshiva saw this same farmer in a dream. The farmer told R' Aharon that he was in the Olam Ho'emes and when he had come before the Heavenly Tribunal his chances of getting into Olam Habo had looked very slim. However, one defending angel came and said that once the farmer had put on tefillin. On the merit of this mitzva alone he gained entry into Olam Haba! Afterwards R' Aharon remarked that all these years he thought he had returned to find his tefillin. In reality he had really been sent back by Hashem to help this Jew earn his place in Olam Habo.

We may not all be great roshei yeshiva, but we still have the ability to influence others for the good. There are many people who believe that whatever bnei Torah and shomrei Torah and mitzvos do, must be what the Torah prescribes. We need to conduct ourselves with this in mind and be sure that the lessons we convey, even unintentionally, are Torah-true. Let us also see a chance encounter with someone as an opportunity to make an impact on their life.

We must also realize that every encounter with an individual is a potential learning experience for ourselves. Even a person of limited learning may have sterling character traits to learn from. One person might be scrupulously honest in his business dealings -- are we willing to apply his level of honesty in our lives?

Another, despite personal hardships manages to greet everyone with a smile -- be inspired! Someone else is careful to say brochos with kavonoh or cautiously guard his speech. These are all opportunities for growth.

This is the lesson we should learn from Sefiroh. Only if we elevate ourselves together, can we be worthy to receive the Torah. We all have something to share, and we can all learn from those around us.

Perhaps we can now understand why R' Akiva's talmidim perished at this time of year. It is important to note that the gemara does not say they were mean or rude to each other, rather they did not treat each other with the proper respect. More is certainly expected of elite people such as the students of R' Akiva, but why was their punishment meted out specifically during Sefiroh?

As we explained, Sefiroh is the time of year when we prepare for kabolas HaTorah and only when we do this all together can we have the yom tov of Shavuos and kabolas HaTorah.

This awareness highlights the importance of each and every Jew. When an individual is missing, the gift of Torah is diminished. If one sees his fellow Jew as a necessary partner in receiving the Torah, he would surely treat him with respect. If R' Akiva's talmidim did not respect each other properly, in at least a small way, it was because they did not see their peers in this light. Since the Sefiroh period is specifically set aside to teach this point, they were judged more harshly at this time of year.

May we learn the lessons of Sefiroh and may we together strive for continued spiritual growth and re-accept the Torah on Shavuos.

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