Eighth Day Passover
By Bob Braun, 5780
A couple of months ago I asked our intrepid drasha coordinators if it were possible to give a drasha on Pesach. My children would be in town, and I thought it would be an opportunity to show off, and after a certain amount of negotiation, I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity. Of course, it turned out to be the day after the holiday, which commonly referred to as the 8th day of Pesach.
I had a plan for the drasha, but since that time, the world has, as we all know, turned upside down. People desire people – even as we complain about it – and our desire to be with our family and friends grows during this holiday, when our family tables swell. And, of course, our desire to be with each other is magnified when we face adversity. It is an ironic turn that, at the very time we would like to be together and face this pandemic that we are prevented from doing so. As I think back of the adversities I have faced in my life – and I am so fortunate to have faced very few – I have always sought my family and friends for comfort and support. And while we all try to reach out to each other, make our concerns and affections known, even seeing each other from six feet away cannot take the place of an arm around the shoulders, a true face-to-face conversation.
So it is somewhat surprising that when I looked at my original notes for my drasha, they seemed to be appropriate for this day, and for what we face ahead.
As we know from the Haggadah, the Seder is a process and an evolution. During the arc of the Seder itself, we chart the transformation of our ancestors from enslavement to freedom, and transform ourselves from slaves to free people. And during the 7 days of Passover, the arc becomes more pronounced; as we live this special life without leaven, as we read Hallel daily, as we remove ourselves from at least some of our daily routines and adopt the habits of Pesach, we also find ourselves changed. The constant knowledge of the holiday changes our outlook, even as we look forward to the first piece of pizza at or about 8:10 pm on Thursday.
The transformation does not end, however, on Thursday evening. As you all know, beginning on the second night of Pesach, toward the end of the second seder, we begin the counting of the Omer, and that is what I intended to talk about a couple of months ago.
The Omer has a number of characteristics and meanings ascribed to it. As my cousin-in-law, an Iraqi kibbutznik, told me very matter of factly, it’s simple; it takes seven weeks for the grains to ripen, and we’re just counting. And it is true that the first harvest is concurrent with the length of the Omer. In fact, the harvests of Pesach and Shavuot are connected: the harvest of Pesach is the initial, lesser harvest; the harvest of Shavuot is the culmination and the greater harvest, the one that we depend upon.
But we also ascribe a great deal of mystical significance to the counting of the Omer. To count the Omer daily is considered an act of devotion and piety – although, since it’s pretty easy to download an omer counter on your smart phone, I’m not sure that it’s much of an accomplishment.
But what is more interesting are the customs associated with the Omer. During Sefirat HaOmer, we assume a form of gloom, acting as if we are in morning. This is attributed to the story that, during Sefirat HaOmer, 12,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples died because they did not treat each other with respect, and we mourn today, both their death, and the reason for it.
But according to Adin Steinsaltz, the customs are not rooted in mourning, but in the need to prepare ourselves spiritually for the acceptance of Torah on Shavuot. We aren’t mourning so much as we are avoiding distractions, like getting a haircut, or shaving, or getting married, because of our focus on the further development of our spiritual lives for giving of the Torah at Sinai. The days between Pesach and Shavuot are an interim period, a period of our own internal change so that, at the end of the 7 weeks, we have achieved a different level of sanctity and purity.
In this way, Shavuot is the culmination of Pesach, and what gives meaning to Pesach. Freedom, alone, does not have meaning unless it is coupled with values. Were freedom the only goal of Y’tziyat Mitzrayim, we would be in anarchy; it is the combination of freedom and acceptance of Torah that creates something greater. It is Torah, combined with freedom, that creates the Jewish people. We can see this in the kavanah we read each day after counting the Omer:
By the merit of Sefirat HaOmer which I counted today, may whatever I have impaired in the serifa be rectified. May I be purified and sanctified with the heavenly holiness, and through this may a beneficent outpouring be effected in all worlds, to refine our lives and spirits so that they are free of defect, purifying us and sanctifying us with God’s holiness.
We are also in period of transition today. The difference is that we, like the Israelites who left Egypt, do not know whether this will last for six weeks – well, at least six weeks – or 8 weeks or 12 weeks or more. We do not know when or how we will emerge, and what we will discover. In so many ways, we are like the Jews in that first Sefirat HaOmer, heading on an uncertain course to an uncertain future.
And we are most certainly displaying the signs of mourning. Even as we seek to create a normalcy in these times, to reach out to one another, to meet at a distance, we are not celebrating weddings, B’nai mitzvot, birthdays. We are not commemorating even the sober reminders of our time – funerals without shiva, Yizkor without a minyan. We are living in a time that is unique from any other time. While we always are making the history of the world, this time, like the Israelites leaving Egypt, we are aware that we are living in history, that what we do, how we react to this world-wide, ubiquitous and universal disaster, will define us.
There are no answers, at least that I have. Tomorrow may find a vaccine, or treatment, or other event that allows us to return to the world we knew — although it is much more likely that are lives are, irrevocably, changed. But during the next six weeks, at least, let us consider the lessons of Sefirat Omer and consider how we can sanctify ourselves, so that when this period does end, we will be better people for it.