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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shemini: The forty-eight things needed to acquire Torah
Starting from on the second day of Pesach we count each day for seven weeks a total of forty-nine days. Shavuous is connected to Pesach by the days of counting Omer. Moses informed the Jewish people that they were going to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt, at the end of fifty days. Just like there are forty-nine levels of impurity, there are forty-nine levels of holiness. In order for the Jewish people to be suited to receive the Torah, they needed forty-eight days of working on the various things by means of which the Torah is acquired. We should strive to elevate ourselves throughout the forty-nine days of the counting of Omer to prepare ourselves to renew our personal acceptance of the Torah on Shavuous. If the days from the exodus till the revelation correspond to forty-eight things needed to acquire the Torah, why did G'd provide forty-nine days? G'd commands us to bring the two loaves on Shavuous so that there shall be Divine blessing in the fruit of the new harvest. Ideally, one should spend some time every day during the period of the counting of Omer to contemplate and analyze one of the forty-eight things needed to acquire the Torah.
Count forty-nine days
In Parashas Emor (Vayikra 23:1-44), the Torah teaches about the various festivals of the year. On the second day of Pesach, it says that a special meal offering of barley should be brought in the Temple form the new harvest. The Torah instructs that starting from that day everyone has to count each day for seven weeks a total of forty-nine days. After the seven weeks of counting comes the Festival of Shavuous, when another special meal offering has to be brought in the Temple. This meal offering consists of two loaves that should be made from the first of the wheat harvest.
Shavuous connected to Pesach
This raises an obvious question. All the other commandments in that portion of Parashas Emor are directly connected to, and are fulfilled, on one of the festivals. However, the counting that commences on the day when the first meal offering, known as the Omer offering, was brought, continues for six weeks after Pesach and does not seem to have any connection either to Pesach or to Shavuous. However, the Ramban explains that just like Shemini Atzeres is a festival of its own connected to Succos by the intermediate days of Chol Hamoed, so is Shavuous connected to Pesach by the days of counting Omer.
Fifty days to receive Torah
The Ran, in his commentary on the Talmud at the end of Pesachim, elaborates on this. He explains that, prior to the exodus from Egypt, Moses informed the Jewish people that they were going to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt. They asked Moses when it was going to be, and he told them that it would take place at the end of fifty days. Immediately after the exodus, the Jewish people started to count towards this great event (see also Sefer HaChinuch para.306). This teaches us that the exodus was not just to free our ancestors from slavery. It had a higher purpose that was reached when the Jewish people arrived at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. G'd told this to Moses already at the burning bush (Shemos 3:12): "When you take the people out of Egypt, you shall serve G'd on this mountain."
Forty-nine levels of impurity and holiness
However, if the revelation at Mount Sinai was the climax of the exodus from Egypt, why did G'd wait forty-nine days to bring the Jewish people there? Would it not be more logical to bring them there as soon as possible, especially as they were so eager to accept the Torah? The Arizal quotes from our sages (see Zohar Chadash beginning of Parashas Yisro) that there are forty-nine levels of impurity in the world, and the Jewish people in Egypt had fallen to the lowest level. This is the deeper meaning of what it says in the Haggadah, that if G'd had not taken us out of Egypt at the time He did, we and our children would still be slaves to the Egyptians. For had we fallen below the forty-ninth level, it would have been too late to segregate us from the Egyptians. The Arizal explains that, at the time of the exodus, G'd elevated us in one instant and brought us out of all forty-nine levels of impurity. At that point it became the job of the Jewish people to elevate themselves and grow in their level of holiness. Just like there are forty-nine levels of impurity, there are forty-nine levels of holiness. G'd assisted the Jewish people to grow one day at a time into a new level of holiness until they were ready to receive the Torah on the fiftieth day.
Forty-eight things to acquire Torah
Many of our sages explain that there is an additional dimension to the significance of the forty-nine days between the exodus from Egypt till the revelation at Mount Sinai. In Pirkei Avos (6:6) it says that the Torah is acquired with forty-eight things. In order for the Jewish people to be ready to receive the Torah, they needed forty-eight days of working on the various things by means of which the Torah is acquired.
Elevate to higher level of holiness
Seder night in the Haggadah we quote from the Talmud (Pesachim 116b): "In every generation we are obligated to regard ourselves as if we personally went out of Egypt." In the same way, we should strive to elevate ourselves throughout the forty-nine days of the counting of Omer to prepare ourselves to renew our personal acceptance of the Torah on Shavuous. Just like our ancestors, we are expected to make a daily effort and grow to a higher level of holiness during this period, and prepare ourselves to acquire the Torah through the forty-eight things mentioned in Pirkei Avos.
49 vs. 48?
Another question arises in this context. If the days from the exodus till the revelation correspond to the forty-eight things needed to acquire the Torah, why did G'd provide us with forty-nine days? The Maharal answers this question with another quote from Pirkei Avos. It says (3:21): "If there is no flour [sustenance] there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour." Rabbeinu Yonah explains that a person cannot dedicate himself to Torah study without any sustenance. On the other hand, says Rabbeinu Yonah, if one does not study and keep the commandments of the Torah, one does not deserve to be blessed with sustenance. Says the Maharal, on the second day of Pesach, the Jewish people would bring the Omer meal offering to merit sustenance. As the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) teaches; G'd commands us to bring the Omer offering on Pesach so that we shall merit to receive His blessings in our produce. After we have made this effort to merit our sustenance, we prepare ourselves for the next forty-eight days to acquire the Torah.
Two loaves on Shavuous
At the culmination of the total of forty-nine days, we bring the second meal offering of two loaves. This takes place on the fiftieth day on Shavuous. For now, that we have prepared ourselves for Torah, we are ready and deserve our sustenance. As the Talmud continues; G'd commands us to bring the two loaves on Shavuous so that there shall be Divine blessing in the fruit of the new harvest.
Contemplate and analyze 48 things
Many people spend some time every day during the period of the counting of the Omer to contemplate and analyze one of the forty-eight things needed to acquire the Torah. However, even if one is not able to do so, it is proper to at least try and work on some of them to prepare ourselves to accept the Torah on a personal level on Shavuous, the time of the giving of the Torah.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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