The period of sefirat haomer has undergone great transformation over the ages. In the Torah itself, it links the korban haomer brought on the second day of Pesach with the korban shtei halechem brought on Shavuot, thereby connecting the barley and wheat harvests. Each day of the grain harvest season was an opportunity to express gratitude to our Creator.
As we all know too well, there is often a gap between the ideal and reality. In trying to implement our goals, we all too often fall prey to conflict, apathy, inertia and reality. The Jewish people faced this same problem as they approached the sea. Behind them was the advancing Egyptian army with its mighty chariots; in front of them was a foreboding sea. Yet their miraculous escape from the most powerful country on earth seemed to have finally convinced them that G-d surely would protect them.
“In each and every generation, one must see oneself as if they had left Egypt”.
In Judaism, we not only commemorate the past, we attempt to experience it, even to re-live it. Why else do we actually have to eat matzah and maror at Pesach, dwell in some flimsy booths each fall, or sit on the floor on Tisha B’Av lamenting the loss of a Temple some 2,000 years ago?
Purim celebrates the eternity of the Jewish people. Despite exile and dispersion, genocidal enemies and those willing to turn a blind eye to such, the Jewish people are here forever. When Esther sent a letter to the Sages, “kitvuni ledorot,” write me down for the generations (Megillah 7a), she was proclaiming that the story of the Megillah is the story of the Jewish people for all time. Its inclusion in the Biblical canon, after a protracted debate no less, marks the stamp of eternity on the story, the story of survival against all odds.
One of the fiercest debates amongst Biblical commentators of the medieval period was to what extent, if at all, parts of the Torah may be seen as allegorical. No less a personage than the Rambam claimed that stories such as the three angels visiting Avraham, or Yaakov’s struggle with an angel, were prophetic visions that did not actually occur. As one can imagine, views such as these—and more radical ones, which allegorized such mitzvot as the “sign on our arm”, i.e., tefillin—met with vociferous opposition.
One of the painful realities of Jewish life is that the Jewish people are often judged by a double standard. What in other cultures is done with impunity often causes an uproar when it is the State of Israel doing the exact same thing. While frustrating and unfair, it is a burden we should be most proud of.
When studying literature we must study not only its content, but also its form. This is especially true in the study of poetry, where the words themselves offer only a limited understanding of the text. Our Torah, in addition to being a description of the Divine, is a work of profound literature and poetry, and our understanding of it is greatly enhanced when we apply literary analysis to its study.
Judaism is not oblivious to the power and even importance of physical beauty. Phrases such as yefat tohar v’yefot ma’areh, loosely translated as very attractive, is one we find in the Torah to describe such heroines as Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Esther. The Beit HaMikdash—and, by extension, our shuls—had to physically reflect the fact that it is the dwelling place of G-d. Beauty is to be obvious to all who enter.
“For the sin that we sinned before you with the evil inclination”.
The double alphabetic acrostic of the al chet lists a wide range of areas in which we have not lived up to our potential. Misuse of speech, lack of integrity in our monetary dealings, getting caught up in the loose moral values of our society, infighting, and our general lack of respect for man and G-d are some of the sins mentioned.
“Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: the majority [of people sin] regarding theft, a minority regarding adultery, and all with lashon hara” (Bava Batra 165a).
Not surprisingly, these three sins make up a significant portion of the al chets we recite on Yom Kippur. And if one wonders what areas one might focus on in seeking to do better, any of the above would be a good place to start.