Sefirat Haomer Liberation of the Mind

1 05 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hanoch Teller

There are two terms for work in Hebrew, avodah and melacha. The Ramban explains that melacha

is purposeful work which produces a finished product, while avodah is labor that has no defined objective. The term eved, a slave, is a derivative of avodah. An eved is one who works with no goal or accomplishments to show for his efforts. His agenda is that of his master’s. When Hashem redeemed the Jews from Egypt he not only freed them from slavery, but from the senseless avodah they were forced to do.

The Jews were commanded to erect two cities, Pitom and Ramses. The Gemara teaches that they were built on quicksand. As soon as they were completed, they sunk into the earth. The Egyptians intended to torture and degrade the Jews with senseless labor. When Bnei Yisrael left Egypt they were finally freed of this avdut. They gained new purpose and became true servants of Hashem.

Erich Fromm noted, “Freedom without freedom for, is not freedom at all.” The seder, the feast of liberation, is bound by laws. There are halachot about the matzot, the korban pesach, the wine, and the marror. Chazal understood that for one to be truly free there must be a purpose. Otherwise a person becomes enslaved to his passions. On the first night of Pesach we savor the freedom to chart our own destiny. On the next night we start counting the omer, working our way towards the goal of matan Torah.

Freedom and discipline are partners. Self-control is achieved by establishing a point of contentment.

Chazal say, “Eizehu ashir hasameach b’chelko.” A rich man is someone who rejoices with his lot.

If we constantly look at others and what they have, we will never be happy.

The Baal Shem Tov told a story of a man who was climbing up a mountain with a heavy load on his shoulder. He looked up at the summit and saw that he was still very far away and he began to feel despondent. The Baal Shem Tov then said, “Instead of looking ahead, look back and see how far you’ve traveled. That will give you the strength to keep on going.”

A person should look inside himself to see who he can become. The happiest people are so busy doing things. They have no time to think if they are happy. One must train oneself to always be joyous and not make it dependent on anything.

Many things happen beyond our control, but you can always control how you will react. The most important component to achieve happiness is gratitude. Gratitude is related to expectation. The more you expect the less grateful you’ll be. The less you expect the more grateful you’ll be.

We have the obvious edge. Judaism is based on appreciation. The Gemara says, “Mishenechnas Adar marbim b’simcha.” (When Adar comes we increase our joy.) It also says, “Mishnenchnas

av m’mamatim b’simcha.” (When Av comes we decrease our joy.). The Kotzker Rebbe questions, should it not say marbim b’aveilut (mourning is increased)? He explains that the baseline for a Jew is always simcha (joy).

Start your day off with gratitude by saying Modeh Ani with passion. Say the blessings with intention and train your children to do so too.

The days of sefirah are an auspicious time to work on yourself. Avoid comparing yourself to others, and having high expectations. Engage in self-discipline and develop gratitude. May we reach sheleimut (perfection) in our avodat Hashem (serving Hashem).

Sefirah: Setting the Stage

2 06 2011

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles 

Sefirah: Setting the Stage

The Sefas Emes tells us that our entire spiritual year is dependent on the days of Sefirah. Just as our physical sustenance is determined during this wheat harvesting period, so too our spiritual sustenance is set during these weeks.   If our lives are dependent on this mitzvah, shouldn’t it involve a lot more than just a minute or so of a short liturgy? Obviously there is more hidden beneath the surface .

The Torah commands us, “Usefartem lachem…,” Why does the verse include the word “lachem“-to you? Wouldn’t “Usefartem“-You shall count, have been enough?  “Usefartem” has the root word sefor, to count, but also the root word sapir, sapphire.  Our hearts resemble the luchot which were fashioned out of sapphire. The innate sapphire brightness of our soul is dimmed by the darkness of sin. Therefore Hashem tells us, “Usefartem lachem“-Make for yourselves into sapphire. Ignite your soul, remove the grime of sin through the mitzvah of counting Sefirah. Then the innate brilliance of your soul will shine through.

What is the power of sefirah that gives us the ability to make ourselves pure and whole again?  If one looks closely, one will find that Shavuot is the only holiday that has a Torah mandated period of preparation.  There is something very pivotal embedded in these weeks.

Sefirat Haomer Part II-Joyful Anticipation

31 05 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Eliezar Miller 

Sefirat Haomer Part II: Joyful Anticipation

Sanctity is achieved through immersion in Torah. Rav Pinchus Koritzer writes that the or haganuz (the hidden light) that Hashem concealed during creation, is hidden in the thirty six sections of the Shas. Learning Torah purifies our soul. In fact the Ramchal notes that if a rasha would learn Torah, he would repent, because the Torah awakens us, overtakes the evil inside of us, and brings us back to Hashem. The more effort we invest and the more desire we have to attain purity, the more Hashem will assist us. Rav Auerbach notes that there is a hint in the verse, “Lifnei mi atem mitaherim…. Before whom do you purify yourself and who will purify you….” Mi is the numerical equivalent of fifty. If we purify ourselves during the forty nine days of sefirah, Hashem will sanctity us on the fiftieth day, Shavuot.

After yetziat mitzrayim, the Jews had an awakening to sanctify themselves. Every year, Hashem sends down from above an abundance of purity.  We need only seize the opportunity. The Chafetz Chaim writes that when a Jew does a sin, the limb that performed the sin becomes impure. While some limbs are minor, damage done to the heart is critical and affects the whole body. Similarly, sinat chinam, which stems from the heart, draws impurity to one’s entire being. Sefira is the time to rectify this and work on loving every Jew.

In Devarim the Torah writes, “No impurity should be seen in you or I will depart from you.”  The Shechina leaves where there is immorality and immodesty. Conversely, it rests where there is kedusha. During sefira, a person must think about his moral conduct and dress and consider whether it is driving away the Shechina or bringing it closer.

Maintaining a level of kedusha entails drawing away from anything that is repulsive. This includes keeping one’s person and surroundings clean so the Shechina can dwell among us. Our natural instinct is to recoil from anything repulsive. This is the response of the inner holy spark within each of us that cannot tolerate impurity.

Before performing a mitzva we say, “Asher kidishanu, Who has sanctified us,” because all mitzvot purify us. There are 265 negative commandments and 348 positive commandments, which correspond to the limbs of our body. Every limb that performs a mitzva becomes a chariot for Hashem.

The Malbim says that a person can uplift himself above nature and connect to Hashem through bitachon. Trusting in Hashem causes Him to treat us in a supernatural way. Speaking in a refined manner purifies the heart. Our sages say, “Man is influenced by his actions.” Speaking about the ideas of our holy sages brings kedusha into the hearts of those listening.

In Lecha Dodi, we sing, “Shabbat is the fountainhead of blessing.” The more connected we are to Shabbat, the more sanctity we will imbibe. The Reishit Chochma writes that Shabbat is the source of holiness. We must draw from its kedusha for the rest of the week. The Chidah adds that when a person keeps Shabbat he attains such a holy level that drives away the impurity of his past sins.

May Hashem give us the ability to purify our hearts and souls in preparation for the great day of kabalat hatorah and may we merit to receive our true portion in Torah.

Sefirat Haomer- Part II- Joyful Anticipation

9 05 2011

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Eliezar Miller 

Sefirat Haomer- Part II- Joyful Anticipation

The period of sefirat haomer leading up to Shavuot is an opportune time for self-rectification. The Zohar writes that we must purify our hearts to receive the Torah. In Sifsei Chaim, Rav Friedlander notes that success in Torah is not so much dependent on the ability of the mind, but rather on the heart. We ask Hashem, “Hu yiftach libeinu..” open our hearts to know your Torah. The heart is the seat of man’s desires. Yearning to grow in Torah stems from the heart. Purifying oneself leads to elevated desires.

The Naharei Eish points out that the way a person learns, depends on his heart. A pure heart will draw a person to learn lishma (for the sake of Heaven). He will not be influenced by other people. Rather he will cleave to Hashem and invest all his effort to fulfill His will. The Chazon Ish writes that if a person does not work to eradicate his ingrained evil middot, then even if he has a great mind, he will not grow in learning. This is because sinful traits close the gates of knowledge and understanding. One needs a refined eye and heart to truly understand Torah. The Meor Enayim adds that someone who is very materialistic will view Torah as divided between good and bad. Therefore we must purify ourselves during these weeks of sefira so that materialism will not blind us from seeing the clarity of Torah.

The Gemara writes about one who learns Torah, “Zoche sam hachaim, lo zoche sam hamaves“-If he is meritorious, then Torah is the elixir of life, if he is not meritorious, it becomes the potion of death. Zoche can also be translated as refined. A refined person who learns Torah tastes life, an unrefined person samples death.  The Gra compares Torah to rain. Rain will make both good and bad vegetation grow, depending on what was sown. Similarly, when a person studies Torah, if deep inside of him, he is pure, more good will result. If he is not, crookedness will emerge.

During Sefira, as we prepare to receive our portion in Torah, we ask v’ten chelkeinu-Give us our portion. Shavuot is a day of judgment, when it is determined how much Torah we will receive for the year. If a person works to purify himself before Kabalat Hatorah, he will receive a much greater portion.

Next week we will continue discussing the proper preparation for receiving the Torah.

Sefirat Haomer- The Inner Count Part 2

9 05 2011
Based on shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

Sefirat HaOmer - The Inner Count

What should our focus be during sefirah? Every individual must introspect and find the points that are lacking in his own individual avodat Hashem. It may be different for every person. Yet there are three approaches we can all take.

The first approach is the Mishna which tells us that Torah is acquired through forty eight ways. The Baalei Mussar recommend that a person work on a different middah every day. The forty ninth day is chazara (review).

The Bnei Yissachor offers a second approach. The Mishna in Avot tells us – Rav Elazar teaches that a lev tov is the most important middah. Lev is equivalent to thirty two. The first thirty two days of sefirah should be devoted to rectifying mitzvot ben adom l’chavero (between man and man). The last seventeen days corresponding to tov should be dedicated to mitzvoth ben adam l’makom (between man and man).

The third approach is based on a maxim by Rav Elazar Hakefar, “Jealousy, desire, and honor, remove a person from this world.” Just as we must repent for evil actions, we must repent for evil thoughts. The Beer Yosef writes that the korbon omer was brought at the very point when the mann ceased falling. The mann teaches us an important lesson connected to sefirah. Everyone received the exact portion of mann that they needed. From this we can deduce that there is no room for jealousy. If a person believes that what is meant for him he will receive and that no one can take what is his without Hashem’s consent, he will never suffer from envy. The second aspect is desire. Rav Shwab points out that when we count we must see ourselves as the barley being cut from the ground. We must lift ourselves off our materialism so that we can become a chariot for Hashem. The third dimension is respect. If we sensitize ourselves to our Divine image, our own internal aspect of kedusha, we will in turn recognize it within others and treat them with the proper kavod.

We begin with mashcheini – Hashem takes the lead. We then immediately move to narutza-we work towards coming back to the spiritual high of Pesach. Only then can we experience heve’ani-the lofty level of kabbalat ha’Torah. Yet we still need another Shabbat-an outpouring from Hashem, to raise us to the final pinnacle. That is why mi’macharat hashabbat is written twice. The first Shabbat hints to Pesach and the second Shabbat alludes to Shavuot.

Sefirat haomer is a mini paradigm of life- inspiration, hard work, and then inspiration again. We need not finish anything, but we must invest effort. Then Hashem will lift us up and help us finish the task.  Whether it is working on the forty eight ways, acquiring a lev tov, or uprooting jealousy, desire, and honor, we must toil and never give up. Then we will be blessed doubly with “mimacharat hashabbat,” with the siyata d’shmaya (divine support) to complete our destined mission.

Sefirat Haomer-The Inner Count

4 05 2011

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles 

Sefirat Haomer-The Inner CountUsefartem lachem mi’macharat hashabbat miyom heviachem et omer hatnufa sheva shabbatot temimot tehiyena, ad mimcharat h’shabbat hash’viit… “And you shall count from the day after Shabbat from the day of the waving of the Omer sacrifice, seven full weeks it shall be until the day after the seventh week…” Why is the phrase “Mi’macharat haShabbat” repeated? Why do we first bring an offering of barley and then of wheat? Why do we count towards Shavuot instead of counting down?

 In Shir Hashirim it is written, “Mashchaini acharecha narutza he’viani hamelech chadarav…”- “Draw me towards you and I will run. The King has brought me into his chamber.” Mashchaini refers to Pesach, narutza is Sefirah, and he’viani is Shavuot. On Pesach, Hashem took the initiative and drew us towards Him. He revealed Himself to us and redeemed us. This is why Pesach is called Shabbat. It is an eternal gift from Hashem independent of human intervention. On Pesach, the Jews reached lofty spiritual levels which they could have never attained on their own.  After this great illumination, they were given the challenge to regain it again. They were commanded “narutza“-to count 49 day.  They were to elevate themselves by degrees, until they could once again reach the level they had attained at Yetziat Mitzrayim. We count towards Shavuot and not down. We must not look at the ultimate goal which we cannot yet appreciate. We must gain strength from what we have already accomplished instead of feeling overwhelmed about what is left to do.  If we look at the omer, the first simple offering, our hearts will be uplifted to ascend higher and higher until we can bring the more elaborate wheat offering on the holy Yom Tov of Shavuot.

 Rav Tatz notes that counting the omer is not just a sentimental marking but a build up towards a goal. It is developing each component of a process. We received that burst of inspiration on Pesach. Our challenge during Sefirat haomer is to return to that level again through our own toil and effort.

  The Ishbitzer Rebbe explains that there is a custom to eat eggs at the Seder night. This is symbolic of a spiritual transformation. On the outside of an egg one cannot tell if a chick will eventually emerge. We need to wait and see what will happen. That’s us on the Seder night. We’ve been touched even though we may not sense anything initially. Sefirat haomer is our incubation period. It is during these weeks that we develop ourselves so that we can eventually emerge as deeper human beings on Shavuot.

 Next week, we will discuss the ways in which we can embark on a path of growth during Sefirat Haomer.

Parshat Shavuot

17 05 2010

Based on a Short Vort by Mrs. Shira Smiles


The only festival that has a Torah mandated period of preparation is Shavuot. Blowing the shofar in Elul is a rabbinic obligation, and cleaning for Pesach has no set time. However, the 49 day sefira count and the shloshet yemei hagbalah (the three day preparation) always precede the yom tov of Shavuot. Why does Shavuot need such intense preparation?

According to Chassidic teaching, Shavuot is a day of judgment akin to Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana we are judged for what will happen to us physically, while on Shavuot our spiritual potentials decided. All of our spiritual moments, feelings of inspiration, and our level of kavana in prayer, Torah study, and mitzvot during the coming year are determined on this day. We know that the real, internal aspect of life is our soul. We need to make sure that we are worthy to attain these eternal spiritual levels. Therefore, the Torah demands major preparation before Shavuot so we will be ready to be judged favorably on this holy day.

May we merit that Hashem give us a year where we can feel connected during the spiritual moments in our life. May we be zoche during this sefira period to take the key component of self, our soul, and develop it to its fullest, so that we can then be inscribed in the sefer hachaim-the true spiritual life.