Way back when, when I was my second-youngest son’s age, I learned in Philadelphia Yeshivah (a high school and post-high school yeshivah), and for two years, had as a rebbi Rav Mendel Kaplan, zt”l. Rav Mendel, as he was known by all, was older than the roshei yeshivah, and was actually a talmid-chaver of Rav Elchonon Wasseman, zt”l in Baronovitch, and a close confidante of Rav Elchonon’s son, Rav Simchah, zt”l. Rav Mendel was a most unique individual, in all senses of the word. The reason I reminisce is that at this time of year I am always reminded of his classic answer to the question, “So how was Rebbi’s Pesach?” Rav Mendel’s answer was, “I do not know yet. Ask me in about a year, and I will tell you. “
No, Rebbi was not a “wise guy,” chas v’shalom. Rebbi was real, and lived the fact that the yomim tovim are meant to transform us, to mold and to reconstruct our character with their profound, penetrating themes. When would that begin to manifest? Certainly not right away; Rav Mendel was saying he would not know until at least many, many months would pass.
What are you walking away from Yom Tov with? How was your Pesach?
Let me be blunt. How was this Pesach different than all other Pesachs in the past? Did you acquire new insights into cheirus-freedom? Did you finally figure out what the point is when the Torah refers no less than 50 times to Hashem having taken us out of Mitzrayim? Do you feel you now have a greater understanding of the makos? A deeper perception of nes and teva? A greater appreciation for Hakadosh Baruch Hu? Perhaps a new awareness?
Don’t you think that as the years go on and on, and the days of Pesach (and other yomim tovim) arrive (and pass) year after year, that you should walk away from Pesach with a refreshed outlook on Chag Hamatzos? And that that should be reflected in some way in your life? And if this sounds weird to you — why, that is so sad! After all, what happens every spring? Isn’t the world renewing itself? Doesn’t plant life and a good part of animal life come to life again with renewed vigor and a fresh start after the winter? And doesn’t this happen year after year after year? Are we passively just going through the motions of the fulfillment of the rituals of a Yom Tov? What about its inner meaning? And shouldn’t every year teach us a new lesson? After all, why else are we meant to experience it?
The Chovos Halevavos relates that the motivation behind writing his sefer was to emphasize the importance — no, the essentiality — of accessing the point, the idea, the concept of the mitzvah (or, at least as much of it that is possible to relate to) rather than the ritual itself. Now, the ritual is unchanging every year; one would not grow, renew, develop new ways of doing the mitzvah. But through learning one can constantly plumb new depths of what the Torah wants us to gain from this mitzvah, how it changes us and brings us closer to Hashem, and makes us better, more spiritual, people. (Nu, what do you plan on doing about this insight I’ve just shared with you? Just turn the page?)
One of the mitzvos which is not as simple to understand as it would seem is the mitzvah of sefiras ha’omer. What are we counting? There is an assumption that we are counting the days until we are to receive the Torah, and the point would be to illustrate through our actions that the raison d’être of Yetzias Mitzrayim was the event taking place a mere seven weeks later, the receiving of the Torah, as Rashi (Shemos 3:12) indeed explains. Rashi says that Hashem was telling Moshe Rabbeinu that the miracles and events of Yetzias Mitzrayim stand as a sign that the ultimate goal, kabbalas haTorah, would indeed occur. And indeed the Sefer Hachinuch (mitzvah 306) so explains the mitzvah of counting: we are anticipating and looking forward to receiving the Torah. As a matter of fact, the Chinuch’s explanation of the mitzvah of sefirah would make sefirah the only place in the Torah which connects Matan Torah to any particular day, and to the fiftieth day of sefirah, in particular.
This, however, raises a series of questions. Why does the Torah talk about counting “from the bringing of the korban omer” (an offering brought on the second day of Pesach) until the bringing on day number fifty of another offering, the shtei halechem? Why are these two menachos the “bookends” of the counting described by the Chinuch as anticipatory and longing for the Torah, and the goal and point of Yetzias Mitzrayim? In fact, the receiving of the Torah is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah as being the root cause of the celebratory nature of the day following the end of the sefirah! So how are we to understand the mitzvah of sefirah the way the Torah describes it: from minchah (omer) to minchah (shtei halechem)? In fact, the Ran in Pesachim, at the very end of the masechta, explicitly states that the reason of counting as anticipating Matan Torah is in the realm of derush, and leaves open the explanation of the point of the counting as described by the Torah.
To be continued im yirtzeh Hashem next week.
Dear Readers: In the spirit of what I have described in the first half of this article, I would like in some way to refresh this column. If readers will e-mail any questions they may have, about any topic at all, to RCZMChadash@gmail.com, I will do my best to answer them, hopefully in this column, hopefully for the benefit of all readers (no names will be printed, and only I will see the email). I, and Chadash, reserve the right to not answer any question, or to answer it privately, and also to edit the question for whatever reason we may choose. So let’s have those e-mails coming, folks!