Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Rabbi David Stav 

The first part of the Book of Leviticus (Vayikra) discusses the sanctity of the Beit Hamikdash (Temple in Jerusalem) and features a detailed description of the priestly services there. Parshat Emor adds a new dimension of holiness to the world of the Beit Hamikdash: time.

One whole chapter is dedicated to the Jewish holidays – the three regalim, or “pilgrimage festivals”, as well as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Usually, each holiday has a set date. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first of the month of Tishrei, the tenth of Tishrei is when we celebrate Yom Kippur, and we have set dates for Pesach and Succot, as well.

The holiday of Shavuot, however, is different. It has no set date, and we calculate the time of the holiday through a counting system. We are commanded to count forty-nine days, starting on the second day of Pesach, and on the fiftieth day, we celebrate Shavuot. In the past, this holiday could have occurred on a number of dates, based on when the Beit Din (Rabbinical Court) sanctified the month of Sivan, but at any rate, the holiday is always celebrated exactly forty-nine days after the conclusion of the first day of Pesach.

This period of time between Pesach and Shavuot is called the Omer, and owes its name to the Omer sacrifice brought on the second day of Pesach. From that day onward, we count until we arrive at the holiday of Shavuot. At the time of the giving of the Torah, these were joyful days in which we counted and prepared ourselves for the Shavuot holiday.

The difference between Shavuot and the other holidays begs an explanation. Why does every other holiday “deserve” its own date, whereas we need to calculate the date of Shavuot by counting?

The idea of a “countdown” appears in many familiar situations. Our children count how many days are left until summer vacation begins, and a conscript soldier counts the amount of days left until being discharged.

We must, however, distinguish between two types of countdowns. One type is used when we have almost nothing to do, time simply passes by, and we pass the time idly and bored, wondering when whatever is supposed to happen will actually happen. There is also, however, another type of countdown, which exists as if to tell us that something important is about to transpire, but which won’t happen on its own; rather, we need to prepare for it. Examples of this type of countdown include the one before a space shuttle launch, or before an imminent military operation.

By and large, the holiday of Pesach is based on divine actions, miracles and signs. These, however, cannot replace a person’s initiative, for which we alone are responsible. If a person wishes to accept the Torah, or wishes to fortify one’s spiritual integrity, that person must rely himself or herself, and work hard to achieve the desired level of improvement. No one can transition from Pesach to Shavuot, the day we received the Torah, without exerting the appropriate human effort embodied by this countdown.

These should be days of song and rejoicing, elements needed by those trying to add another spiritual plane to their lives. However, over time, a number of things went wrong for the Jewish People.

Our sages tell us that 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died during this period, the period of the countdown, because they had not acted with respect towards each other. The practice of treating others disrespectfully is generally not a one-time occurrence. It is a behavior that tends to be perpetuated. This disastrous trend could have occurred at any time other than during the period of Sefirat Haomer. Why during this time?

Perhaps since this tragedy specifically occurred during a time when we are expected to make an effort to raise the spirits of others, the human spirit sunk to unprecedented depths when people insulted each other. It was at that point that these days of rejoicing became days of sorrow.

These principles hold true today, as well. Any nation that enjoys the blessings of political independence may and must choose its political and social path, and any exercise of a right or obligation is also a holiday for the human spirit, as each segment of society attempts to persuade others that its path is the correct one. Such a holiday becomes a tragedy, however, if we attempt to convince those around us by debasing them. This is our challenge during this time.

[Translated from the Hebrew by Ilan Yavor]
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