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).

Sefirat Haomer Part I: The Special Event of Kabbalat Hatorah

20 04 2012
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Eliezer Miller

The days of sefirat haomer are days of spiritual preparation for the holiday of Shavuot.

The Netivot Shalom notes that the order of the moadim: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, are a way for a person to come closer to Hashem. It starts with Pesach and peaks at Shemini Atzeret. Pesach and the period of sefirah represent the engagement of a couple. In Mitzrayim, Hashem chose klal Yisrael as a nation. Shavuot corresponds to the wedding. The Torah represents the ring and through that gift we became mekudeshet (sanctified) to Hashem.

Shir Hashirim says, “Heviani hamelech chadarav.” (The king has brought me to his chamber). On Sukkot, Hashem brings us into his home, the sukkah. Sukkah is the numerical value of ninety one, which equals the two names of Hashemyud keh and adnut. On Shemini Atzeret there’s a yichud ila’a, a higher union between Hashem and klal Yisrael.

The Rashash writes, “The days of sefirat haomer are the root of the whole year.” The way a person prepares himself for the spiritual marriage with Hashem that is the way his connection with Hashem will be during the year. This is why it’s so important to prepare ourselves properly. Depending on how much a person solidifies his connection with Hashem and desires to be close to Him, that is how much light he will be able to receive on Shavuot.

Although the holidays repeat themselves, a new aspect of Hashem is revealed every year. There’s something unique in each yom tov that will never be again. This should give us strength to start anew.

When dough starts rising and one isn’t ready to bake it, one gives it a smack and knocks it down. Every year the yetzer hara rises higher and when Pesach comes Hashem knocks it down and gives us protection. On Pesach we turn ourselves away from the domination of the yetzer hara and start setting our minds towards Hashem. The work of sefirat haomer is to begin connecting to Hashem, to sanctify ourselves, to correct our souls, and to refine our spiritual nature.

The Chiddushe Harim notes that the days of sefirah are an auspicious time for spiritual growth because during this period our ancestors were redeemed and we were elevated from lowly slaves to the level of receiving the Torah.

The Sefer Torat Chaim comments on the word of the verse, “Usefartem lachem.Lachem is rashei tevot, Kdai l’tahreinu miklipasenu.” The essence of sefirah is to purify ourselves. The Ohr Hachaim says that Usefartem comes from the same root as sapir v’yahalom, a sapphire stone. Through the counting, one polishes oneself like a sapphire stone. Every year klal Yisrael go through the forty nine days when Hashem weakens the power of the evil inclination so we become worthy to receive the Torah.

The Shem Mishmuel says that even if a person doesn’t feel any purpose in counting at all he has to believe that his soul is being purified. This gives a person strength to start anew.

Sefirah is a time to work on kedusha (sanctity) and tahara (purity). Every person has their portion in Torah and if a person doesn’t purify himself he cannot receive his portion.

Rav Pinchos Koritzer notes that the or haganuz , the hidden light that Hashem created at the beginning of time, is hidden in the thirty six tractates of Shas. Baal Haturim says et ha’or has the numerical value of 613. Every mitzvah a person does reveals another aspect of this hidden divine light.

May the Torah and mitzvot engendered through our inner work during sefirah bring us to new levels of sanctity in serving Hashem. May we merit to receive our full portion in Torah.

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.

Lag B’aomer-Balancing The Individual And The Nation

16 05 2011
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Herschel Reichman

Lag BaOmer: Balancing the Individual and the Nation

During the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot we mourn the passing of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who were decimated in a plague. Why did they die? What caused the plague to cease on Lag B’aomer? What can we learn from this tragic episode?

The Gemara tells us that the students died because they did not give each other sufficient respect. The Shem Mishmuel discusses two contrasting approaches to understand this puzzling statement.

While the written Torah is limited, the oral Torah continues to evolve. Great Torah scholars with their own unique thinking continuously delve into the intricacies of Shas (the entire corpus of Talmudic teachings) and develop new and original Torah thoughts. Since this process involves the individual, it can lend itself easily to pride. Continuous disputes between scholars may lead to selfish vested interest. Developing one’s independent thinking, yet at the same time valuing another scholar’s view, is a challenge all Torah scholars have to grapple with.  Rabbi Akiva’s students became so enthralled in their own learning that they would not consider each other’s view. Each thought his own way was best. This may have been their flaw and why they were punished.

The Zohar writes that the students of Rabbi Akiva were a reincarnation of the 24,000 Jews of the tribe of Shimon who died in a plague in the desert. They were punished for rebelling against Moshe and for thinking that they understood Jewish law better than he did. Their self-centeredness drove them to their death. This same sin of egoism and pride spelled the death sentence for Rabbi Akiva’s students. Unfortunately, after being tested a second time they failed again. Similarly, the areas in which we see ourselves sinning time and time again are usually what we are on this world to correct. Hashem gives us the ability to conquer our urges and correct our failings. Sefira is an opportune time to rectify what needs fixing.

Shem MiShmuel offers an alternative, second explanation. Every Jew has a double role, to be an individual and to be a part of the collective nation. At Matan Torah, there was a total unification. Klal Yisrael was as one man with one heart. While receiving the Torah was a national event, the actual fulfillment of the mitzvot depends on each individual. Just as our body has many parts, but remains one integrated whole, we must see ourselves as a part of one national unit. Then there is no place for pride. The students of Rabbi Akiva understood this concept of unity incorrectly. They loved each other so much that they fused into a single entity. They did not see it necessary to give each other honor, just as a person would not give any extra respect to his own legs or hand. This may have been their sin.

The month of Nissan represents klal, the community. In this month, the nation’s Exodus from Egypt occurred. Iyar symbolizes the prat, the individual. In this month each Jew counts his own Omer. On Pesach Sheini, every person brings his individual sacrifice. Sivan is the resolution of prat and klal. The sign of Iyar is twins. Though the Torah was given to the Jewish nation, it was also given to every individual. Every Jew has his own personal share in Torah. As one universal whole, there is no room for pride. Yet on the individual level, we need to give each other honor. Rabbi Akiva’s students did not understand this delicate balance and therefore they were decimated.

Lag Ba’omer begins the last third of the Sefira period.  It corresponds to the last ashmora (third) of the evening, when light begins to filter into the world. Whether the students died because of too much prat or too much klal as they misinterpreted them, on Lag Ba’omer the perfect paradigm of Shavuot begins to be felt.

In many ways a husband and wife symbolize this symbiotic relationship. While they are two parts of one soul, they are still two separate individuals. Being as one is a powerful state, but runs the risk of not giving one’s spouse the proper respect. We need to realize that though we are meant to unite, we each have a unique contribution to make to our families and to the world.

This Lag Ba’omer, may we attain the perfect balance of prat and klal, not losing sight of each Jew’s precious individual worth, while uniting as one to serve Hashem.

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.