Friday, April 25, 2014

Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva/A Thought on Sefirat Ha’Omer

I hope you are well and have recovered from Pesach. We resumed our learning this week on Thursday, and I'd like to share with you a sicha I gave on sefirat ha'omer which opened the new post-Pesach zman at the yeshiva. 

The sefirah connecting the two chagim clearly demonstrates that there is a progression from one to the other, that the purpose of freedom from slavery was not just to be free, but for that freedom to lead somewhere, to achieve a higher goal. It was just not what, Isaiah Berlin, would call "a freedom from," freedom from restraints, bondage, and oppression, it was also meant to be a "freedom to," a freedom to serve a higher purpose."They are my servants," avadei hem, "for I have taken them out of the land of Egypt, the house enslavement," mi'beit avadim.  We have been freed from human bondage to devote ourselves serving God. 

The question that I then posed to the students was: "What is this higher purpose?" What is the end of the Pesach story? Is it that we were freed to devote ourselves to living a life of Torah and mitzvot (starting from "we were idol worshippers" and ending with "and now God has drawn us close to serve God")?  Or is it that we were freed so we could enter the Land of Israel and build a society and nation based on Torah and justice (think of the ending of the trajectory of dayeinu and the end, in the Torah, of the arami oved Avi story - "va'yiten lanu et ha'aretz ha'zot", and God gave us this land)?  What is our understanding of what yitziat mitzrayim was all about? What is the ultimate vision, the ultimate goal of all of this?

There are those who use the period of sefirat ha'omer to focus on tikkun ha'midot, working on their character traits. This is a laudatory practice, and the decision to use this as a period of growth is to be commended. But even there, the goal and vision is limited. It is a private, personal one. It does not tap into a larger narrative, it does not attempt to answer the question - "where is this all going?" Contrast this with the kabbalistic approach that connects each day with a different Divine sefirah. That frames sefirat ha'omer in cosmic terms - how our act of sefirah, indeed our entire life of Torah and mitzvot, functions to unite the different aspects of the Divine and to increase God's presence in the world. Whether or not this approach works for us, it at least is an attempt to answer the question "What is this all about?" Before we discuss moving from Pesach to standing at Sinai, we need to determine what and where our Mt. Sinai is.

In general, when we talk about religious striving, we focus on the personal, and on improving ourselves in different ways: better middot, better dikduk bi'mitzvot, more time devoted to Torah, working harder on connecting to God, working harder on our davening.  Again, laudatory and absolutely necessary.  But what we are most in the need of is a larger vision. One could believe, like Rav Yisrael Salanter, that the purpose of focusing on self-betterment is because this is ultimately the end goal of the Torah, to make ourselves, and for everyone in the world to make him- or herself, the most moral and ethical person possible. That would be one answer to the question: why did we leave Egypt?  Where is our journey taking us?  But first we have to ask the question.

What we are most in the need of as a narrative that will take us from Mitzrayim and point us to the Promised Land. We need this for ourselves, for the larger Jewish community, and for the world. And if we don't yet know what the answer is, the first step is to begin to ask the question.

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