The period of Sefiras HaOmer (Counting the Omer) is known as the time of preparation for Kabbalas HaTorah (receiving the Torah). It is also the period of mourning for R' Akiva's talmidim (students). There is an aspect of sefira that can help us look at this yearly occurrence in a new light and also give us an appreciation of why it was during sefira that R' Akiva's students perished.
The Torah gives jurisdiction for the establishment of the Jewish calendar to the Beis Din (Jewish court of law). Even when the moon is clearly visible, if the Beis Din feels that there is a need, they may delay being michadesh (sanctifying) the new month. This in turn, affects when Yom Tov falls out. If chas v'shalom the institution of Beis Din would cease to exist, we would not have the present day calendar as established by Hillel 1 and there would be no way for us to determine dates to celebrate Yomim Tovim. It is for this reason that we conclude the bracha of kedushas hayom (the middle blessing of Shemoneh Esrei which describes the essence of the day) for Shabbos with the words mikadesh HaShabbos, whilst on Yom Tov we say mikadesh Yisrael v'hazmanim. The kedusha, sanctity, of Shabbos is an inherent feature of the seventh day, but the kedusha of Yom Tov is dependent on Kedushas Yisrael. Therefore before we mention the kedusha of Yom Tov, we insert the Kedushas Yisrael.
The holiday of Shavuos is an exception to this rule. The Torah states that Shavuos is celebrated 50 days after the Omer is brought, regardless of the day it falls on 2. After the Beis Din sanctifies the month of Nissan, they have no further role to play in relation to the timing of Shavuos. Even if hypothetically speaking, the Beis Din would lose its authority at that time, the celebration of Shavuos would not be affected.
It seems then that Bnei Yisrael should have no role to play in the sanctification of Shavuos. Yet on Shavuos we also say the bracha - mikadesh Yisrael v'hazmanim. The Sheiltos explains: "Lo l'Beis Din bilvad hu dekmizaheir Rachmana l'mimni v'kedushi Atsarta ela l'kulhu Yisrael d'tanya 3 U'sefartem lachem-shetehei sefira l'kol echad v'echad."
The commandment to count the Omer and to sanctify Shavuos was not given exclusively to the Beis Din; it was also given to Bnei Yisrael 4.
There are two mitzvos of counting in the Torah - counting the years until Yovel and counting the Omer. The Netziv 5 states that just as the counting to Yovel sanctifies the Yovel, so too the counting of the Omer sanctifies Shavuos. One can make a further comparison. Just as the counting and the sanctification of Yovel is incumbent upon the Beis Din, so too one might think that the counting and sanctification of Shavuos is also only the Beis Din's role. However, the Torah states u'safartem lachem. Each and every one of us has a mitzva to count and in turn each and every one of us brings about the sanctification of Shavuos.
Why is Shavuos different from the other Yomim Tovim? Shavuos is the anniversary of Kabbalas HaTorah. The Torah was not only given to the Sanhedrin (Jewish "Supreme Court"), it was given to the entire nation. To emphasise this point, Hashem determined that Shavuos would be sanctified only through each and every individual's acceptance of the Torah. Since this requires spiritual preparation, we were all given the mitzva of sefira. We must all count (the Omer) because we all count!
Each individual's process of counting represents his own struggle to acquire his designated portion of the Torah. He must count for himself, and cannot fulfil his obligation through someone else 6 - for how can another person acquire the portion of Torah set aside for him? We must all recognise that we have something unique to contribute to the Torah and without this, the rest of the nation will be missing something from the Torah. We can not rely on others - we must do it ourselves.
Conversely, we must also appreciate that just as we have our own portion in the Torah, which we must share with others, so too, everyone else has their portion, which we must receive from them. As the Mishna states: "Aizeh hu chacham halomeid mikol adam" 7 - Who is wise? He who learns from every person.
The Torah is rachava minei yam, wider than the ocean 8. However knowledgeable someone might be, there is always something new we can teach or explain to them. Also however knowledgeable we are, there is always something that we can learn from others. One person might be proficient in a certain messechta (tractate), or seder (order of Mishna), while someone else might know another messechta. They can offer each other assistance in grasping difficult concepts in the other messechta. One person might be more analytically inclined, while another has a very broad background in bekiyus (general knowledge). They should all share with each other and also accept from one another. But Torah is not just limited to learning.
In Parshas Bamidbar the passuk states:
"V'eileh toldos Aharon u'Moshe b'yom diber Hashem es Moshe Behar Sinai" 9 - "These are the offspring of Aharon and Moshe on the day Hashem spoke with Moshe at Har Sinai".
The Torah continues with a listing of Aharon's children, but there is no mention of Moshe's offspring. Rashi's deduces from this that one who teaches his friend's son Torah is considered to have given "birth" to him. This is truly an insightful lesson. However, this parsha seems an unusual place to teach it. Parshas Bamidbar only discusses the counting of the Bnei Yisrael. Wouldn't it be more fitting to mention this lesson which pertains to the significance of Talmud Torah in a parsha which discusses many Torah laws? (e.g., Parshas Mishpatim contains all the dinim (civil laws) along with mishpatim and many more mitzvos, Parshas Tazria-Mitzora deals with the difficult area of tuma and tahara, spiritual purity and impurity). What is conveyed by teaching this lesson here in Bamidbar? The answer is that Torah infuses every aspect of life. Even a census has to be conducted in the proper manner, and for the proper reasons. Moshe gave over the entire Torah to Aharon's children, yet he would be considered as a father to them for having imparted this lesson alone!
We can also see this point by observing an interesting phenomenon. Most Yeshivos and mosdos HaTorah (Torah institutions) lack funds. Accordingly, the Roshei Yeshivos are forced to close their Gemaros and go out to raise the necessary funds to keep their institutions afloat. Since Hashem can definitely provide for the Yeshivos through other means, why does the Ribbono Shel Olam want the Gedolim to go fundraising? Wouldn't their talmidim gain more from their presence in the Beis Medrash?
The following episode involving HaRav Shneur Kotler zt'l illustrates that Hashem is not merely satisfied with the talmidim one has established in the Beis Medrash. He also wants the Gedolim to go and influence new talmidim.
Once on a fundraising trip to Memphis, Tennessee, R' Shneur was advised not to bother soliciting from a certain individual who was known not to believe in tzedaka. The Rosh Yeshiva felt that in such a case he definitely wanted to meet with the person. An appointment was arranged and R' Shneur ultimately spent close to two hours with the gentleman. During that time the man revealed that he was a Holocaust survivor. He explained that living through that terrible experience had caused him to lose his faith in G-d and mitzvos. The Rosh Yeshiva patiently explained to him that although the Holocaust was a horrific experience, it does not give us the right to question Hashem's ways. The very fact that he managed to survive where so many had perished was certainly grounds for expressing gratitude to the Creator. When the Rosh Yeshiva got up to leave, he said that in two hours he had spent talking with this man, he could have seen several people who would have probably made very generous contributions. Instead he decided to spend this time with him in order that he should have the opportunity to acquire a portion in the world to come through the mitzva of tzedaka. The gentleman was very touched and wrote out a cheque for fifty dollars and thanked the Rosh Yeshiva for coming 10.
R' Shneur understood that if Hashem sent him to Memphis, he had a mission to fulfil. Whether it was offering chizuk, giving shiurim or inspiring individuals who would not otherwise have an opportunity to see Gedolei Yisroel, there was a reason for his many travels. And who better to influence than someone who did not believe in giving tzedaka. Surely Hashem would insure that the Yeshiva's budget would be met 11.
We may not all be great Roshei Yeshiva, but we still have the ability to influence others for the good. There are many people who believe that whatever Bnei Torah and Shomrei Torah and mitzvos do, must be what the Torah prescribes. We need to conduct ourselves with this in mind and be sure that the lessons we convey, even unintentionally, are Torah-true. Let us also see a chance encounter with someone as an opportunity to make an impact on their life.
We must also realise that every encounter with an individual is a potential learning experience for ourselves. Even a person of limited learning may have sterling character traits to learn from. One person might be scrupulously honest in his business dealings - are we willing to apply his level of honesty in our lives? Another, despite personal hardships manages to greet everyone with a smile - be inspired! Someone else is careful to say brachos with kavana or cautiously guard his speech. These are all opportunities for growth.
This is the lesson we should learn from sefira. Only if we elevate ourselves together, can we be worthy to receive the Torah. We all have something to share, and we can all learn from those around us.
Perhaps we can now understand why R' Akiva's talmidim perished at this time of year. It is important to note that the Gemara does not say they were mean or rude to each other, rather they did not treat each other with the proper respect. More is certainly expected of elite personalities such as the students of R' Akiva, but why was their punishment meted out specifically during sefira? As we explained, sefira is the time of year when we prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah and only when we do this all together can we have the Yom Tov of Shavuos and Kabbalas HaTorah. This awareness highlights the importance of each and every Jew. When an individual is missing, the gift of Torah is diminished. If one would see his fellow Jew as a necessary partner in receiving the Torah, he would surely treat him with respect. If R' Akiva's talmidim did not respect each other properly, in at least a small way, it was because they did not see their peers in this light. Since the sefira period is specifically set aside to teach this point, they were judged more harshly at this time of year.
May we learn the lessons of sefira and may we together strive for continued spiritual growth and re-accept the Torah.
1 See Sefer Hamitzvos L'haRambam, 153 with Hasagas HaRamban.
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