There seem to be two concurrent themes as we make our way through sefiras ha’omer, counting the days to Shavuos. One theme is that we are undergoing preparation for Matan Torah. We anticipate Matan Torah, we long for it, we look forward to it, and we are readying ourselves for it. This would be based on the Chinuch’s explanation of this mitzvah. Other sefarim also point out that, appropriately enough, the Mishnah in Avos (technically not a Mishnah, but close enough) speaks of 48 ways to “acquire” Torah (one day, bli neder, we will attempt to explain that statement), and therefore one should study and delve into those 48 necessary attributes a person must have or develop before being able to “acquire” the Torah. 48 ways, 49 days, and we should work on one attribute each day leading from Yetzias Mitzrayim to Matan Torah, with day number 49 devoted to “bringing it all together.” This further adds to the context that we await Matan Torah during sefirah, i.e., that that is the meaning and essence of this time frame.
Unfortunately, another theme is one of aveilus, for all of the talmidim of Rabbi Akivah who perished “between Pesach and Shavuos.” This decimated Torah knowledge from Klal Yisroel, until Rabbi Akivah, through a network of only five talmidim (!), restored Torah and its learning to some of its former glory. Why did they die, what was the cause of this great tragedy? Chazal state openly, “For the lack of respect they showed one another.” Although one suspects that the definition of lack of respect as far as Rabbi Akivah’s talmidim were concerned is markedly different than what we imagine for our own demonstration of a “lack of respect,” nevertheless, there is a point and a principle being expressed: that Torah cannot exist in a framework lacking in proper bein adam lachaveiro values. We don’t know what Rabbi Akiva’s talmidim were doing, or not doing, and surely we cannot judge them. But what we can do is to be determined not to let our flaws in our human relationships spoil our ability to receive and absorb Torah. Yet how, and why, and in what way, does this lack bespeak a lack of worthiness for Torah?
The famous Gemara in Maseches Shabbos relates of the would-be ger asking to be taught the entire Torah “while standing on one foot.” The Maharsha explains that this was a way of saying that surely there must be a unified, single princiciple upon which the entire Torah rests. Hillel’s famous answer was the equivalent statement of the posuk, “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” (love your fellow Jew as you love yourself). Now, we all agree that is a wonderful sentiment, and in fact quite inspiring. Yet is it true, and how is it true, that this is THE principle? Why and how is this the founding principle? Does all of Torah indeed rest upon this statement? Really? Shabbos, kashrus, tefillin, challah, Pesach, karbonos — what can it mean? Now, Rashi there in Shabbos gives us two rather cryptic explanations, neither of which is seemingly very satisfying. One is that we are to interpret the word rei’acha in the posuk as meaning Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and a complete fulfillment of this posuk would thus preclude any action against Hashem’s will. And a second statement in Rashi is that indeed, most of the Torah’s laws are bein adam lachaveiro. Now, even taking both statements of Rashi together, the Gemara still seems unfathomable.
Another part of sefiras ha’omer, of preparing for Matan Torah, is the enumerating of the seven “middos,” and reciting each day another “middah,” or combination of “middos.” For example, week one is the middah of chessed, and days one through seven run the gamut of middos — from chessed within chessed, to gevurah within chessed, to tiferes within chessed, etc., until yesod within chessed and malchus within chessed. Week two is gevurah, and again runs the gamut, and so on. Without going into the detail this deserves (which would take a book), suffice it for now to say that sefarim expalin that Hakadosh Baruch Hu created and interacts with the world through the seven middos (attributes, though it must immediately be pointed out that, stricly speaking, Hashem has no “attributes,” that these descriptions are just the way we have of relating to Him and emulating His ways). They are, briefly, chessed (kindness, mercy, love, giving, going beyond oneself, benevolence), gevurah (justice, din, restraint, discipline, yirah, limits, boundaries) tiferes (harmony, symmetry, balance, truth), netzach (fortitude, endurance, persistence, committment, long-range solidity), hod (a difficult one, sometimes defined as splendor, something akin to charisma, sometimes explained as humility, yielding, sometimes as acknowledgement; seemingly contradictory, but from a G-dly perspective, the ability to relate to all beings is the ultimate hod quality, as we say, “Wherever one finds Hashem’s greatness, there he finds His humility” as He bestows His gifts upon all; we would be acting with hod when we acknowledge that any prowess we may have is a gift from Heaven, and that true humility allows a reaching out and sharing with others, no matter how lowly they may seem), yesod (foundation, bonding, connection, fusion, attachment, embedding), and malchus (sovereignty, leadership, nobility, dignity, selflessness, majesty, authority).
These are the “middos” through which Hashem related to the world upon its creation; and He continues to do so as He continues to oversee and constantly maintains creation.
And all the middos intertwine and blend with each other. There is a multitude of complexity and subtelty in the beriah, giving rise to, for example, chessed sheb’gevurah (the chessed within gevurah), tiferes sheb’yesod, where we say that each middah is multi-dimensional, and blends and shares aspects of its unique quality with a different middah. (To give an example: gevurah sheb’chessed means that love and giving cannot be unbridled, that it must contain elements of restraint, discerment, discipline, and appropriateness. Netzach sheb’chessed means that the love is enduring, and withstands setbacks and difficulties; it is loyal and constant. Malchus sheb’chessed means it is dignified, and for the good of the recepient; it is mechazek, not overbearing or demoralizing).
Next week, im yirtzeh Hashem, we will pull together the ideas discussed these last two weeks so that they form a basis for our upcoming kabbalas haTorah. (That would be yesod sheb’tiferes, which is the middah of the day I am writing this column, 5 Iyar !).
Still waiting for the outpouring and overflowing of e-mails, though it does gladden me to see that people do not have questions to ask… I am jealous!