Sunday, April 22, 2007

With or Without a Bracha

Passover is behind us but the freedom we celebrate as earmarked by Pesach isn’t quite over-not until Shavuot when the process is complete and we mark our lives with the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Between these two seminal events are a series of occurrences which serve as benchmarks, sign posts which guide us along so we can appropriately accept Torah. It is a very special time of year because it is marked with so many significant events, in effect creating for us a unique and special state of mind.

Our Rabbis teach us that the three days before Shavuot are called the Shloshet Yimei Hagbalah. These were the days of preparation in anticipation of receiving God’s law, the Torah at Sinai. But beyond the Shloshet Yimei Hagbala there has developed in our history a series of other benchmarks which without giving them their due is very difficult to approach Shavuot with a full heart. Commemorating Yom Hashoa, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut are three very painfully difficult events that all happen within a few short weeks of each other, each emotionally exhausting. Ostensibly, each has its own unique purpose and reason, but if we read Jewish History existentially one realizes that the three events merge into the other, blurring the unique distinctions of each of them. Psychologically this period becomes a block of time, its own unique dimension that we as Jews collectively enter and pass through. Binding them together is the Sefirat Haomer. In effect the Sefirat Haomer becomes the framework, the boundaries of this dimension.

Sefirat Haomer is an important ritual, a time marker by which we measure movement from Passover to Shavuot. We are commanded by the Torah to count the 49 days leading up to Shavuot on the fiftieth day. We celebrate the counting of the Omer for other reasons as well. In the desert after the exodus our ancestors prepared themselves for the Sinaitic revelation during those 49 days. But there are other reasons why we mark these 49 days so stringently. These are the days when Rabbi Akiva lost his 24000 students to disease. We also mark the suffering and heavy loss of life during the crusades.

Sefirat Haomer then, clearly isn’t meant to be a perfunctory ritual that one recites nightly with or without a Bracha, depending on the consistency of one’s performance. It really is a time when the need to sit back and take stock of our collective Jewish history is compelling, to consider where we’ve been, where we are going and how we are going to get there.

So I place within this existential framework, this unique dimension of Sefirat Haomer, accessible only to feeling and thinking Jews our more current experiences of Shoa L’Tekumah, from destruction to renewal of our people and ask annually whether there is a connection between the Shoa and the Tekumah. The argument goes both ways and as so many other issues of Jewish existence we will have to defer the answer to future times, the meanwhile shelving it as a Teku.

What we ought to be pondering as well while navigating through this dimension is how we have been affected by the State of Israel’s existence and how much we have to be thankful for on this Yom Haatzmaut. Most of us can’t imagine our lives without Israel. Rather than focus on the negatives, let us but for a moment recall the contributions Israel has made over the past 59 years. Israel certainly continues to fulfill its divine mission of being an Or Lagoyim, a beacon to the nations of the world. When considering the contributions over the past 59 years in medicine, science, technology and environmental research and studies one must take pause and ask if this is possible. When taking into account Israel’s contribution to the study of religious/sacred texts in yeshivot or academic institutions, ethical research and its applications, the humanities and literature it is difficult to fathom. Beyond that Israel has given us the intangible hope for a better Jewish future for our children and future generations. It has made us proud and determined to succeed and Israel has taught us that self sacrifice for the greater good of our people is right and noble.

I have a very close friend who has accompanied me through life since puberty. Every year he asks me the same question: did I manage to complete the cycle of Sefirat Haomer with a Bracha? And every year I answer him with a question as a good Jew would: Did you say Hallel on Yom Haatzmaut with a Bracha?