And Counting: Insights into Parshat Kedoshim
Rabbanit Sally Mayer is the Rosh Midrasha of Midreshet Lindenbaum‘s Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program
In Parashat Kedoshim, we read of the mitvza of Orlah: when we plant a fruit tree, we may not eat its fruits for the first three years. In the fourth year, the fruits are “kodesh hilulim laHashem,” and they must be eaten in Jerusalem in the time of the Holy Temple, with halakhot similar to those governing the fruits of Ma’aser Sheini (second tithe) — one may redeem their holiness onto coins and, in the time of the Mikdash, bring the coins to Jerusalem to purchase food. What is the reason for this mitzvah? Why must we leave three years’ worth of fruit untouched, bring the fourth year’s fruits to Yerushalayim, and only in the fifth year use the fruits as we wish?
The Ramban suggests that this mitzvah is similar to that of Bikurim: we must bring the first fruits of each tree up to Hashem, to His holy city, just like we bring the first fruits of the seven species of Eretz Yisrael up to Yerushalayim, beginning on Shavuot. The Ramban explains that since the first three years’ fruits are not very beautiful, we wait for the fourth year, when the fruits are worthy to present to Hashem. What results is a cycle of three years of waiting, of preparation, of tending to the tree and helping it to grow (except, of course, during shemitah), followed by a fourth year which is special and holy. This structure is similar to that of shemitah, in which we work the land for six years, followed by a year which is special and holy, and its fruits have a special status as well. It also reminds us of the time of sefirat ha-omer, where we find ourselves now: we count 49 days, until we reach the 50th day, Shavuot, which is set aside for Hashem.
What is the nature of these days or years of waiting? Orlah is a time of preparation – it is premature to eat the fruits, or even to bring them to Hashem, but we must create the circumstances in which the fruits will flourish, so that we can offer them to Hashem when they are ready. Similarly, we can take the opportunity of the time period of sefirat ha-omer to prepare to accept the Torah, by redoubling our efforts to learn Torah and to observe mitzvot. Sefirat haomer can be a time of introspection, of preparing to receive the Torah anew with greater understanding and commitment. Many people take on a project to learn something new during this time, such as Pirkei Avot, traditionally studied a chapter a week in between Pesach and Shavuot, to remind ourselves of the character traits that are the basis of a Jew’s personality. In fact, the Torah speaks of “orlah” in another sense as well: “umaltem et orlat levavkhem” (Devarim10) – Hashem commands us to remove the orlah (the same term used for the foreskin removed at a brit milah) from our hearts, that which prevents us from listening to the Torah and keeping the mitzvot. If we use the time of the omer to remove this barrier from our hearts, then we will be ready, be-ezrat Hashem, to bring the fruits of our labor to Hashem on Shavuot, ready to accept His Torah again.