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(Adapted from the Chofetz Chayim)
When a man who is sentenced to death pleads with the king for clemency, he hopes, perhaps he is even confident, that the king will grant him a reprieve.
How is it then, asks the Chofetz Chayim, that when the son of Shlomis bas Divri was placed in gaol to await G-d's decision, G-d, who is after all the personification of chesed and whose Torah begins and ends with acts of chesed, did not give him a chance, insisting that he receive the death sentence and be stoned to death according to the law? What happened to His graciousness? What happened to His kindness and sense of goodwill?
Indeed we are told in numerous sources that things such as repentance, prayer and charity can nullify the evil decree. So why was this man not given a chance to make amends for his sin? Why was no form of divine Pardon forthcoming?
To be sure, teshuvah bears much weight before the Heavenly Throne; to the extent that, as the Gemoro informs us in Makos (13b), G-d is willing to grant a person who is "chayov koreis" a reprieve, provided his teshuvah is sincere and "reaches the Heavenly Throne". As the Rambam writes: he is announcing to the Divine Judges, "See, I am not the same person over whom you passed sentence" and his judgement is duly revoked. However, that only concerns a sentence passed by the Heavenly Court, who know with certainty that one's teshuvah is indeed genuine. The human Beis-din, on the other hand, see only superficially. They cannot vouch for the ba'al teshuvah's sincerity. "Man sees only on the surface, but Hashem sees into the heart" (Shmuel I 16:7). They therefore have no jurisdiction over his pardon, but are duty-bound to carry out the sentence - though not before the accused has confessed and, to the best of their knowledge, has done teshuvah before Hashem. Alternatively, it is the king, and the king alone, who has the right to pardon the sinner for his sins and to grant him a reprieve; the executioner, who is merely an agent of the king, has no authority to modify the sentence. ('There is no mercy in judgement.' See Rashi Sh'mos 23:21) That is the principle in the case of any sentence passed by the Beis-din, and it was that principle which had to be practised here, once Hashem had revealed that the formal punishment for those who curse Him is death by stoning.
In fact, explains the Chofetz Chayim, death is an act of kindness, for without it, one's sin cannot be cleansed. Perhaps this is not the case by a sin whose punishment is only koreis. Perhaps there, Hashem is willing to pardon him, without the need to be punished. Be that as it may, death at the hand of Beis-din is vital to achieve an atonement for the sins that warrant it. Without it, one cannot enter the World to Come. That explains why Yehoshua said to Ochon before he was stoned: "Hashem will blacken you in this world" - in this world, he was saying, but not in the World to Come (Yehoshua 7:25). And that explains why someone who hands over all his children to Molech (the idol in whose name small children were passed through fire) is not killed - because for him, death is not a sufficient means of atonement - maybe he has no atonement at all in this world!
The World to Come is a world of perfection. A blemished person cannot enter there - and anyway he would feel horribly conspicuous and out of place - like a withered daisy among a display of prize roses. The only way of gaining entry is by prior cleansing - and that cleansing process can be painful, depending upon the weight of the sin or sins that require cleansing. The Torah declares those sins for which one is "chayov misah" (guilty of the death sentence at the hand of Beis-din) to be of the worst calibre, for which the only cleansing process is death, and that cleansing process is truly an act of kindness, for it permits him to enter a place of such beauty, that we in this world cannot even conceive it. Without that process, he would be barred from that idyllic experience. If man wishes to get away with murder, to avoid the death sentence, it is only because he does not, he cannot - even minutely - understand what sort of Utopian existence awaits him once his sins have been atoned for. Would he but realise this, he would welcome his sentence with open arms and beg for its immediate implementation.
Since When do we Count the Barley?
Since we count the days of the Omer, and not the barley-grains, why do we refer to the mitzvah in question as 'Sefiras ho'Omer"? It is well known that we bring the Korban Omer (of raw barley) on Pesach, and the two wheat loaves on Shevu'os - because we left Egypt on Pesach, fresh from slavery, raw and uncultured, spiritually as well as mentally. In a way, we were like animals (which humans without a Torah really are) - and barley was considered an animal food. By Shevu'os, however, we had developed into a sophisticated and a religious nation, so the Korban that is brought on Shevu'os is the two breads - human food. And that was precisely why they counted the days between the Exodus from Egypt until the day that they would receive the Torah at Har Sinai - they were counting and progressing from the forty-ninth level of impurity (from total animals) to the forthy-ninth level of purity (the ultimate human-beings).
And that explains too, why the Torah links the counting of the Omer to the 'Korban Omer' at the beginning, and to the 'Two Breads' at the end. The connection is not just a casual one, but deliberate.
The source for the custom of children to play with bows and arrows on Lag bo'Omer, is based on a play of words - because the word for a bow - 'keshes' - is equivalent to that of a rainbow. The beautiful rainbow is not a good omen at all - it is a sign that the world really deserves to be destroyed, and is only being spared due to the covenant Hashem made with No'ach. (Hence the text of the b'rochoh we recite upon seeing a rainbow, and hence the custom not to divulge having seen a rainbow, to others.)
There were very few generations when no rainbow was seen at all (the mark of a righteous generation) - one of those rare generations was the generation of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose righteousness shielded over the world. Consequently, playing with a bow is symbolical of the righteousness of Rebbi Shimon bar Yochai, whose yohrzeit is celebrated on Lag bo'Omer.
This mitzvah applies to each individual, explains the Gemoro in Menochos (5b). By a similar mitzvah in Parshas Behar, the Torah also writes "And you shall count" with regard to the seven cycles of seven years that lead to the Yovel year. Yet there, says the Toras Cohanim, the mitzvah is incumbent upon the Beis-din. They must count, and not each individual. Tosfos explains that the source for this distinction lies in the number - the word used with regard to Sefiras ho'Omer is 'u'Sefartem lochem' (plural), implying that every individual is obligated to count; whereas by Yovel, the Torah writes "ve'sofarto lecho" (singular) addressing the Beis-din, placing the obligation on their shoulders.
As for "Ve'sofroh loh" that the Torah writes by a zovoh, although the Torah uses the singular number there too, it is obvious from the context that the mitzvah refers to each zovoh independently. Nor could it be otherwise, since, unlike the two mitzvos currently under discussion, not all women become zovos simultaneously. Therefore, there is no other way of explaining the possuk, other than that each woman must count when she becomes a zovoh.
The same Gemoro in Menochos, explaining the possuk in Re'ei (16:9) "Shiv'oh Shovu'os tispor loch" (singular), writes that it is a mitzvah incumbent upon the Beis-din. At first, this appears to clash with the first Gemoro that we quoted. But this is not so, points out the Torah Temimah, because this latter Gemoro is referring to something quite different: it is referring to Rebbi Eliezer's response (one of many answers cited in the Gemoro) to the argument of the Tzedokim, who insisted that one begins counting the Omer on a Sunday, since the Torah writes "And you shall count from the day after Shabbos" (Va'yikro 23:15).
If that was the case, R. Eliezer countered, then the seven weeks would be regular weeks, each one beginning on Sunday and ending on Shabbos. But the Torah writes "ve'Sofarto lecho" etc., implying that this counting is determined by the Beis-din (meaning that they follow the first day of Pesach, which is determined by the Beis-din and is not fixed - like Shabbos is). With this explanation, we can understand why the Torah in Re'ei does not refer to counting the days, as it does in Emor; it is because it is not concerned here with the actual details of the mitzvah, only as a sign as to when the Omer should begin.
The Shema and its B'rochos
'To Love and to Fear Your Name'
It is interesting that, after beseeching Hashem to help us attain the highest levels in Torah knowledge and observance, we conclude with the words 'and unify our hearts to love and to fear Your Name...'
It seems that loving Hashem and fearing Him is the crowning glory of all our efforts, the peak of the highest levels of study and fulfillment.
Particularly intriguing is the order of our request - 'to love and fear Your Name', in spite of the fact that the fear of G-d is generally assumed to precede His love, the order of progression being first to fear Hashem, and then to go on to love Him. The Yerushalmi writes that both fear of G-d and loving Him are necessary since, without the former, the latter can lead to rebellion; and without the latter, the former can lead to hatred. Perhaps then, what we are saying here is that, even after we have attained the level of loving Hashem, we may not relinquish our fear of Him, but must continue to fear Him, to ensure that our love does not turn into contempt and rebellion.
Others explain that we are referring here, not to the basic level of fear of punishment, that leads to loving Hashem, but to a fear that is born of love - one that is known as 'Yir'as ho'Romcurus', the fear to sin because one loves Hashem and does not want to cause Him pain; or for fear of losing the image of G-d in which we were all created - and thereby not fulfilling the purpose for which we were placed on the world.
'And Lead Us Upright to our Land'
In this b'rochoh we link Torah with Eretz Yisroel, for it is no coincidence that we ask Hashem here to gather us from the four corners of the earth and lead us upright to our land - immediately following the most fervent prayer asking for Torah and spirituality. True Torah and genuine spirituality are synonymous with Eretz Yisroel, as our sages have taught us 'There is no Torah like the Torah of Eretz Yisroel' (Sifri, Eikev).
The centrality of Eretz Yisroel will come up again in the second Parshah of the Shema, and we will discuss the connection between Torah and Eretz Yisroel there.
'...Who Chooses His People with Love'
Hashem wants us to serve Him with love, as we shall see clearly illustrated in the Shema. Meanwhile, He has set us the example. Three times in this b'rochoh alone, we refer to Hashem's love of His people - at the beginning, in the middle and at the conclusion of the b'rochoh. Elsewhere, we refer to Hashem bringing the redemption with love and accepting our prayers 'with love', as well as to the Cohanim blessing His people Yisroel 'with love'.
Love is a major key to success in any intimate relationship, whether it is in a marital one, a parent-child relationship, one to do with man and his friend, or the relationship between man and G-d. For love entails giving - doing what one does for the sake of the person that one loves - not in order to receive something. It is not a coincidence that the Hebrew word 'ohav' is so similar to the Arama'ic word 'hav' meaning 'to give'. Hashem chose us with love, and teaches us Torah with love, because He loves us and wants to benefit us, and that is the way He expects us to serve Him - with love, because we want to benefit Him, to give Him nachas with our good deeds, and not just because we have to.
That is why the Tana says in Pirkei Ovos, 'Make His will your will!' There is simply no comparison between someone who does something because he has to, and someone who does it as an act of goodwill - because he wants to. The former will act begrudgingly, searching for the slightest excuse to exempt himself from his obligations, whereas the latter, in an ongoing effort to please the beneficiary, will constantly try to improve the quality, as well as the quantity, of his good deeds.
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