Chapter 21

1 In order to train them in their observance: Although the continuity and endurance of the Jewish people hinges on education,1 the Torah does not mandate educating the young until here—fourteen parashiot after the giving of the Torah (in parashat Yitro)—and even here, it mentions only the priests’ duty to educate their young, leaving us to infer that this duty devolves upon the rest of the people, as well.

It is thus clear that the Torah takes education for granted, relying on the example set by our forefather Abraham, for which God chose him to be the progenitor of the Jewish people.2 In this context, it postpones the mention of education until this point in order to teach us some specific lessons.

We note firstly that the sages refer to the priests’ duty to educate their children as their responsibility “to caution” them,3 the Hebrew word for which (להזהיר) also means “to make shine.”4 This implies that rather than being content with setting an elementary educational standard for our youth or training them in the perfunctory observance of the commandments, we should teach them to perform the commandments optimally, even beyond the letter of the law, so that they—both the commandments and the children—sparkle.

This lesson is emphasized by the fact that the Torah teaches it to us through its instruction to the priests. The priests’ task is to help others rise spiritually and become close to God (through the sacrificial service); so too, we should strive to educate our youth not to merely be well versed in the Torah and punctilious in observing its commandments, but through this study and observation draw close to God.

Secondly, this lesson appears in the Book of Leviticus—more of whose content is devoted to the exposition of God’s commandments than is that of any of the other books of the Torah5—and specifically toward the end of this book, after most of the laws of the Torah have been given (inasmuch as the commandments recorded in the Books of Numbers and Deuteronomy were also given at Mount Sinai). This suggests that this emphasis in education should be all-encompassing and predicated on our basic commitment to study and observance.

Finally, this message appears in parashat Emor, which contains the commandment of counting the Omer.6 As we will see,7 this commandment allegorically represents our collective education as a people, and the word used for “counting” (sefirah) also means “gleaming” or “shining.” What more appropriate a commandment than counting the Omer to convey this message of optimal and shining cultivation of our children—of the child in years, the child in Jewish knowledge, and the child within each of us.8

10 The priest who has been elevated above his brothers: The Oral Torah9 notes that since this phrase can be read, “the priest who is the greatest [in wealth] of his brothers,” it implies that the high priest must be the wealthiest of the priests. Furthermore, since it can also be read, “the priest who is [made] great [in wealth] from [the wealth of] his brothers,” it implies that if the high priest is not the wealthiest priest when he is appointed, his fellow priests must contribute of their wealth to him until his surpasses any of theirs.

Were a simple Jew to be asked to contribute toward the high priest’s endowment, he would most likely do so eagerly. He would immediately recall how much he owes the high priest—his chief representative in the Divine service of the Temple, and specifically, the one who obtains atonement for the whole Jewish people on Yom Kippur—and how the Torah invests the high priest with so much holiness that it requires him spend almost all his time in the Holy Temple,10 forbidding him to leave even to mourn for close relatives. He would therefore consider it an honor to contribute to his support, thereby having at least a small share in the high priest’s holiness.

Were the same proposition to be brought to a regular priest, however, the response might be less keen. Considering himself also holy, he might not deem it such a privilege to contribute to the fund. If asked to solicit funds from other priests, he might begrudge the time it would take him to do so, arguing that this would force him to neglect his sacred duties.

Thus, the Torah emphasizes the endowments to the high priest be “from his brethren,” to teach us that it is specifically those who have dedicated their lives to their own spiritual attainment and/or the religious needs of their fellow Jews who need to acknowledge their debt to their generation’s spiritual leaders.

Similarly, we all devote at least part of our lives to our own spiritual growth and the advancement of our fellow Jews. But in addition, we each have our personal “high priest,” the holiest, innermost point of our Divine soul, which we must ensure remains preeminent even above our explicitly religious pursuits, in order that our approach to these pursuits not become tainted with ulterior motives. The surest way to ensure that the innermost core of our Divine soul is always actively inspiring and purifying our intentions is by acknowledging the preeminence of our generation’s true spiritual leaders.11

11 In order to bury a corpse he happens upon: The high priest’s obligation to defile himself in order to bury an unattended corpse applies even in the unlikely event that such a situation presents itself while he is performing the sacrificial rites of Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies. If there is no one else that can bury this corpse, the high priest must leave the Temple in order to do so; taking care of his fellow Jew’s needs supersedes tending to his own spiritual tasks.

Analogously, there are many people who may be considered “unattended, lifeless bodies” spiritually. When, by Divine providence, we encounter such people, it may well be that there is no one else that can attend to their spiritual needs at that particular moment. We must therefore seize the opportunity to help them, reminding ourselves that even the high priest is required to disregard his most sublime responsibilities in order to bury an unattended corpse, but we have been granted the privilege of not merely attending to a “dead” person but reviving him.12

Chapter 22

A Closer Look

[31-33] Martyrdom: Normally, we are not allowed to suffer martyrdom rather than transgress God’s commandments, meaning that if we are given the choice to transgress a commandment or die, we must transgress the commandment. The exceptions to this rule are as follows:

· The prohibitions of idolatry, forbidden acts of fornication, and murder: If we are given the choice to commit these transgressions or be killed, we must choose death.

· In cases of public religious suppression: If we are being told, as a means of suppressing the observance of Judaism, to violate any of the other commandments on pain of death, and this ultimatum is being witnessed by at least ten adult Jewish males (one of which can be us), we must choose death. Otherwise, we must transgress the commandment.

· In cases of national religious suppression: If the government has outlawed the observance of Judaism and made its observance a capital crime, we must choose death rather than violate any commandment, even privately.

Suffering martyrdom in any of the cases where it is required is “sanctifying God’s Name”; choosing not to suffer martyrdom when it is required is “desecrating God’s Name.”13

In addition, any intentional, rebellious disobedience of God’s will is a desecration of God’s Name, and any fulfillment of God’s will performed for its own sake rather than for some ulterior motive is a sanctification of God’s Name.

Finally, any act that discredits the Torah or its effect on those who observe it—such as unethical or vulgar behavior by an observant Jew—is a desecration of God’s Name, and any act that dignifies the Torah or its effect on those who observe it—thereby encouraging the study of the Torah and the observance of its commandments—is a sanctification of God’s Name.14

32 That I may be sanctified among the Israelites: The most flagrant desecration of God’s Name is the exile, during which the world is bereaved of the Holy Temple and its spiritual radiance. The existential nature of exile is the concealment of Godliness in the straightjacket of natural cause and effect; exile thus gives the world the impression that God is powerless to overcome the forces of nature and history. In this context, the grandest sanctification of God’s Name will occur in the messianic era.15

As we have seen,16 if God commands us to do something, it is because spiritually, He has obligated Himself, so to speak, to do the same thing. God thus keeps all the commandments in their cosmic sense. If this principle applies to all the commandments in general, it most certainly must apply to the cardinal commandment of sanctifying His Name! Thus, commencing the messianic era is, so to speak, imperative on His part.

This imperative also stems from another cardinal concern: preserving human life. Inasmuch as the collective life of the Jewish people in exile is in danger—whether physically or spiritually, from assimilation and intermarriage—God is clearly obligated to liberate us from this vital crisis immediately.

For our part, we must constantly “remind” God of His obligation, both by demanding that He redeem us immediately and by reorienting our own consciousness away from the mentality of exile and toward the mentality of redemption.17

You must not desecrate My holy Name, so that I may be sanctified among the Israelites. I am God, who sanctifies you. This verse describes the three-step process whereby we can bring God’s presence into our everyday lives.

You must not desecrate: These words (ולא תחללו) also mean “you must not make a void.” By virtue of our Divine souls, we are all innately continuously united with God. However, the materiality of life in the physical world can at times make us apathetic or antagonistic to this connection, causing us to feel estranged from God, as it is written, “Surely, God’s hand is not short, [preventing Him] from saving [you]; nor is His ear deaf, [preventing Him] from hearing [you]. [It only seemed this way] because your transgressions were separating you from your God.”18 We must therefore, first of all, make efforts not to allow a gap to develop between ourselves and God, by overcoming apathy and complying with God’s will.

So that I may be sanctified: The Hebrew word for “sanctified” or “holy” (קדוש) means “separate,” “beyond,” or “transcendent.” Meditating on God’s transcendence (which is one of the main themes of the daily morning liturgy) while remaining simultaneously cognizant of His closeness to us will ignite the flames of our innate, rapturous love for Him. Thus, once we have eliminated the artificial gap between ourselves and God, we can fan the embers of our hitherto dormant souls into an enthusiastic blaze. We can arouse our innermost love for God, the fire that burns among (literally, “within”)every one of us, in our heart of hearts, and aspires to Divine sanctity and transcendence.

Among the Israelites: The word for “among” (בתוך) also means “within,” meaning that persistently meditating on God’s transcendence will allow this renewed enthusiasm to penetrate our hearts, saturating our consciousness with love of God.

I am God who sanctifies you: God will then respond to our initiative, revealing His transcendence in our lives. The pronoun “I” in this verse refers to God’s essence (which is normally beyond any revelation); the Name Havayah then describes the process whereby God “contracts” His essence and manifests it in our lives, thereby transforming us into “sanctified” human beings, living even our mundane lives on the plane of God’s transcendence. In this context, the fire of our love for God is the “kiln” in which we fashion vessels to contain and retain transcendent Divine consciousness, these vessels being our study of the Torah and observance of its commandments.19

27 When an ox, sheep, or goat is born, it must remain in its mother’s care for seven days; it will be accepted as a sacrifice for a fire-offering to God from the eighth day onward: The mystical meaning of this law is as follows:

“Mother” signifies the intellect, since the intellect “gives birth” to the emotions. When the intellect recognizes the virtue of something, it “gives birth” to an emotion of love for it; when it recognizes the undesirability of harmfulness of something, it “gives birth” to an emotion of hatred or fear for it; and so on.

The “animal” signifies the emotions, since animals are driven by their instinctive emotions rather than by intellect. The “animal” aspect of man is thus his array of emotions.

When an emotion is “born,” it must be “incubated,” i.e., matured, by the intellect. This is a process of seven “days,” i.e., a sevenfold process—one for each of the seven basic emotions. Only after the emotions are thus matured are they fit to be “an offering for God,” i.e., become part of the psyche of a human being dedicated to God’s service.20

Chapter 23

A Closer Look

[2] The court must intercalate a month: Since the solar year is approximately 11 days longer than the lunar year, a “leap month” needs to be periodically intercalated in order to ensure that the holidays—which occur on specific days of the months—occur in their proper seasons.21 When the Jewish calendar was fixed in the middle of the fourth century,22 seven out of every 19 years were designated as leap years, in which an extra month is added before Adar.23

A Closer Look

[4] They will determine: The system of determining what day should be “sanctified” as the first day of each month—based on the Sanhedrin’s calculations and the testimony of witnesses—remained in force until the middle of the fourth century CE, when Hillel II, who was then head of the Sanhedrin, instituted the use of a fixed calendar, which is the calendar still used today. Hillel II was forced to abandon the former system due to the decimation of the Jewish population of the Land of Israel, the persecution of the Jews by the Byzantine government (rendering collecting the testimony of witnesses too dangerous), and the imminent dissolution of the Sanhedrin.24 The original system will be reinstituted with the renewal of the Sanhedrin in the messianic Redemption.

4 The following are God’s appointed days: The three pilgrim festivals mark the key points of the agricultural cycle: Passover occurs when the produce begins to ripen, Shavuot when the wheat is harvested, and Sukot when the produce is gathered in from the fields.25

Allegorically, God refers to the Jewish people as His “produce.”26 Just as a farmer sows grain in the earth in order to reap a much greater return, God “sows” Jewish souls in the physical world in order to enable them to accomplish much more than they can in their spiritual abode.

Continuing the analogy, just as a seed’s outer coating must disintegrate before the seed can grow, our course, outer husk—our ego—must be negated in order for us to grow spiritually.27

The following are God’s appointed days, the designated holy occasions that you will designate to be such in their appointed time: The Hebrew word for “occasion” (מקרא) literally means “a calling together [of people],” and is derived from the root that means “to call,” “to read,” (i.e., “call out”), and “to call forth” (קרא). It can thus also mean “that which is read,” or “Scripture.” Based on this, this verse can be interpreted as follows:

The following are God’s appointed days: The festivals are ordained in the Torah, and as the sages tell us,28 the Torah existed for “two thousand years” before the world was created.29 Nonetheless, these festivals could not be observed until the Torah was given to the Jewish people.30 Until then, they were only “God’s appointed days”; they existed merely as unfulfilled, abstract concepts.

The first step in concretizing the abstract potential of the festivals as they are written in the primordial Torah is for us, the Jewish people, to study them in the Torah. Whenever a Jew studies the Torah, “the Holy One, blessed be He, reads along with him,”31 meaning that we draw increasingly more of God’s transcendent holiness into the Torah, each time infusing the skeletal framework of the text with greater new revelations of Divinity.32

The designated holy occasions (or: “the callers-forth of holiness”): However, infusing the Torah with transcendent Divinity is not the ultimate purpose of creation; rather, we are bidden to infuse mundane reality with transcendent Divinity, thereby transforming the physical world into God’s home. This was accomplished only when we began actually observing the festivals, thereby eliciting (“calling forth”) holiness and investing it within them. In so doing, we take mundane time and transform it into sacred time.

That you will designate to be such in their appointed time: We are only able to accomplish this, however, by “designating” (or “calling forth”) the festivals, which here means preparing for them spiritually, so that we can experience their holiness “in their appointed time.” It is a mistake to think that spirituality can be experienced without proper preparation. There are exceptions, but in general, it takes effort to divest ourselves of our accrued materialism, opening ourselves up to spiritual awareness. Among the preparations that enable us to experience the spiritual dimension of the festivals are immersion in a mikveh, giving charity, and studying and meditating on the inner dimension of the Torah.33

6 On the 15th day of that month begins the Festival of Matzos: Although throughoutthe Torah, this festival is usually referred to as “the Festival of Matzos,”34 in common usage it is usually called “Passover.” (The term “Passover” in the Torah almost always35 refers to the sacrifice associated with this holiday rather than to the holiday itself.) According to the Chassidic sage Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev,36 the two names reflect two different perspectives on the holiday.

God wishes to stress the uniqueness and valor of the Jewish people; He therefore focuses on the matzah. Matzah recalls how the Jews left Egypt in such haste that they did not have time to let their dough rise,37 highlighting their implicit faith and their willingness to follow God wherever He directed them to go.38 We, on the other hand, relate to the holiday as an opportunity to praise and thank God; we therefore refer to it as Passover, recalling God’s great miracles, particularly when He “passed over”39 the Jewish houses and brought His plagues only upon the Egyptians.40

15 You must count for yourselves seven weeks: Even though, when the Temple is not standing, we cannot offer up the omer of barley on the second day of Passover, we still commence counting the 50 days “of the omer” from that day. The days of “counting the omer” act as the bridge between our annual reliving of the Exodus from Egypt (on Passover) and our annual reliving of the Giving of the Torah (on Shavuot).

As we have seen,41 the Jewish people did not “earn” the Exodus; in fact, God had to “artificially” give them something to do in order to merit their redemption in at least some small way. Thus, God took the initiative in the Exodus, pulling His people out of their spiritual and physical bondage despite their unworthiness. Because they were not redeemed on their own merits, their redemption could not transform them in any way. Spiritually, their human/animal souls remained unrefined despite the experience; whatever spiritual arousal they experienced was merely a reaction to processes that took place entirely outside of them. For this reason, the spiritual effect of the Exodus was temporary; the spiritual danger represented by Egypt still remains.42

In contrast, the Jews were much more prepared for the Giving of the Torah. The Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, the lessons they learned from the Clouds of Glory, the manna, the quails, the well, and all the incidents that occurred en route to Mount Sinai combined to ready them for the Divine revelation. Therefore, the revelation at Mount Sinai was a lasting and meaningful one, which indeed transformed them and us, their progeny, for all time. It was here that they received the full manifestation of their Divine souls.

We undergo this same dynamic in our annual reliving of the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah. God allows us, individually and collectively, to experience a rebirth every year at Passover. Just as God miraculously renews nature each spring, He re-inspires us each Passover, freeing us from the wintry, depressing bondage to the forces of physical and spiritual entropy rooted in the materialistic consciousness of our human/animal soul. However, since this quantum leap (Pesach, the Hebrew name of Passover, means “jump”) is largely His doing, it cannot transform us in any lasting way. That can be accomplished only by a renewed acceptance of the Torah on Shavuot, and the way we prepare for Shavuot is through counting the omer.

Our human/animal soul comprises both intellect and emotions. When the Temple stood, the omer offering rectified the animal intellect (since, as the sages note, grain promotes the maturation of the intellect43); it is therefore the only communal grain-offering of barley,44 which is primarily used as animal food. Nowadays we can only substitute the study of the laws and significance of the omer offering in order to accomplish what the offering itself should. Since even the human/animal intellect is predisposed to intellectuality, it is a relatively simple process to refine it. All that it is necessary to change is the subject matter, reorienting its focus toward Godliness. Therefore, this process can be accomplished by one act, in one day.

Rectifying the emotions of the human/animal soul, in contrast, requires more arduous work, since the emotions themselves have to be recast, not only reoriented. This process therefore is more complicated, and is accomplished (both when the Temple is standing and when it is not) by the seven-week process of counting the omer.

Our emotional makeup, including that of our human/animal souls, derives from the emotional attributes through which God created the world and continues to relate to it. As we have seen,45 there are seven of these emotional traits:46

In our childhood, these emotions are “one-dimensional,” i.e., absolute and unmitigated. We see that children are intensely emotional, reacting extremely to whatever pleases or displeases them. In contrast, the emotions of mature adults have been tempered by their intellect, so they are less extreme and intense. On the other hand, it is fairly easy to calm a child’s emotions, since they are not as stable as those of an adult, whereas those of an adult, being more solidly grounded in the intellect, are harder to change. Thus, the process of maturation may be described as the process whereby the intellect learns how to influence the emotions.

This is the process we undergo through counting the omer. Each week, in turn, we refine one of the seven emotions of our human/animal soul by submitting it to the guidance of the intellect. The hallmark of an emotion that has been matured by the intellect is that it can function harmoniously with the other emotions. Thus, the maturation of an emotion is expressed by its development into a full array of seven emotional attributes in its own right, through which it can include the other emotions in its own self-expression.

For example, when a parent hits a child’s hand to keep him from touching fire, this is an act of severity, but it is motivated by kindness. It is therefore termed “severity of kindness.” Conversely, we are taught that when God allows the wicked to prosper in this world, it is in order to reward them for all the good they have done here so their corrective punishment in the afterlife can be meted out to them unmitigatedly. This would be termed an act of “kindness of severity,” since the act of kindness is motivated by strict justice.

During the seven days of each week, we add another emotional dimension to the emotion we are focusing on that week. The full process, therefore, unfolds as follows:

1st week

2nd week

3rd week

4th week

5th week

6th week

7th week

1st day

kindness of kindness

kindness of severity

kindness of beauty

kindness of victory

kindness of thanksgiving

kindness of foundation

kindness of kingdom

2nd day

severity of kindness

severity of severity

severity of beauty

severity of victory

severity of thanksgiving

severity of foundation

severity of kingdom

3rd day

beauty of kindness

beauty of severity

beauty of beauty

beauty of victory

beauty of thanksgiving

beauty of foundation

beauty of kingdom

4th day

victory of kindness

victory of severity

victory of beauty

victory of victory

victory of thanksgiving

victory of foundation

victory of kingdom

5th day

thanksgiving of kindness

thanksgiving of severity

thanksgiving of beauty

thanksgiving of victory

thanksgiving of thanksgiving

thanksgiving of foundation

thanksgiving of kingdom

6th day

foundation of kindness

foundation of severity

foundation of beauty

foundation of victory

foundation of thanksgiving

foundation of foundation

foundation of kingdom

7th day

kingdom of kindness

kingdom of severity

kingdom of beauty

kingdom of victory

kingdom of thanksgiving

kingdom of foundation

kingdom of kingdom

Each day thus presents us with a very specific and clear objective: to work on and refine one aspect of our human/animal soul’s emotional makeup. Through this process, this soul matures and is ready to welcome the renewed manifestation of our Divine soul that takes place when we relive the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot.47

You must count for yourselves seven weeks: The process just described is alluded to in the very wording of this commandment. The word for “you must count” (וספרתם) can also be translated as “you must make bright.” Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi thus interprets this verse as follows:

You must make yourselves bright: You must purify yourselves until your inner holiness shines forth, illuminating your lives. This is accomplished by working on your—

Seven weeks; they must be complete: Refine the seven emotional attributes of your human/animal soul, transforming each one into a complete array comprising all seven emotions itself.48

You must count for yourselves seven weeks: An additional way of “making ourselves shine” is illustrated by the following story:

Gavriel and his wife Chana Rivka, respected citizens of Vitebsk, had been married for twenty-five years but had not been blessed with children. Their one joy was sharing their wealth with the needy. Whenever Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi sent emissaries to collect money for a good cause, they were among the first to donate.

Sadly, because of persecution from the authorities, Gavriel lost all of his money. The next time an appeal arrived from Rabbi Shneur Zalman on behalf of some poor prisoners, Gavriel was heartbroken that he couldn’t take part. Chana Rivka, however, took action. She sold some of her jewelry and gathered the coins to send with her husband to the Rebbe. But first, she scrubbed every coin until it shone, and prayed that their luck should also begin to shine.

When the Rebbe saw the shining coins, he said: “Of all the gold and silver vessels in the Tabernacle, the copper of the Laver was the shiniest, for the women donated it joyfully and selflessly.” He then asked Gavriel where the coins were from. Gavriel was forced to tell the Rebbe about his financial straits and Chana Rivka’s selfless act.

The Rebbe leaned his head upon his hands for a while. He then blessed Gavriel and Chana Rivka with children, long life, wealth, and remarkable charm. He instructed him to close his shop and become a diamond dealer. From then until his passing at the age of 110, Gavriel and his wife enjoyed great wealth.

The monetary value of the coins Gavriel and his wife gave to charity was not changed by Chana Rivka’s scrubbing, but because of the joy and selflessness with which she donated them, their spiritual worth became infinitely greater, enough to elicit sufficient Divine beneficence to change reality.49

Starting on the day after of the day of rest: As we have just explained, the counting of the omer is an arduous process of self-refinement for which each of us must assume personal responsibility. Nonetheless, since “taming” the human/animal soul requires going against its nature, we would not be able to undertake this challenge without some initial propulsion from God. This is why the count can only begin on the second day of Passover, after God has redeemed us from the restrictions of nature by taking us out of our collective and individual Egypt.

The Torah therefore, in this verse, refers to the first day of Passover as “the day of rest,” i.e., the Sabbath. As the last day of the week of creation, the Sabbath is the pinnacle of time. Nevertheless, inasmuch as both space and time are the contexts within which God created this finite world, even the Sabbath is finite. By telling us to begin to count the omer from “the day after the Sabbath,” the Torah is ensuring that we set upon this task supported by God’s transcendent energy, which is beyond the limits of time.

Since the revelation of this transcendent Divinity occurs specifically on the first day of Passover, it is clear that the Torah means for us to begin counting the omer on the day after that day rather than on the day after the Sabbath (i.e., Sunday), as a literal reading of the verse might imply.50

Nonetheless, the Boethusians, a heretical Jewish group who lived toward the end of the Second Temple era, took this phrase literally and therefore maintained exactly that. They insisted that counting the omer should always begin on a Sunday. In order to force the Temple service to follow their interpretation of this verse, they even went so far as to try to rig the rabbinical court’s declarations of the New Month so Passover would occur on the Sabbath.51 The sages of the Talmud, in defense of the understanding of this verse as passed down from Moses (i.e., that the “Sabbath” referred to in this verse refers to the rest observed on the first day of Passover) offered no less than five separate textual references disproving the assertion of the Boethusians.52

The reason why the Boethusians were disposed to insist that counting the omer begin on a Sunday was because they felt that the only way such a lofty endeavor could be attempted was if it was preceded immediately by the spirituality of the Sabbath. True, we are enjoined to celebrate both the Sabbath and the festivals with fine food and fine clothing, but whereas the sublime sanctity of the Sabbath elevates these material indulgences to experiences of spiritual delight, the spirit of the festivals is more that of joy and elation. Thus, the requirement to eat festive meals is greater on the festivals than it is on the Sabbath;53 we even have to be warned against undesirable effects of overindulgence.54 The Boethusians therefore reasoned that such sensual excess could hardly be considered conducive to undertaking a process of spiritual growth.

However, they missed the entire point. The reason the Torah requires us to begin the counting of the omer after some other event or day, as explained above, is because we cannot accomplish this supernatural transformation of the human/animal soul solely with our own strengths; we need the added help of God’s transcendence. Our own self-refinement is of no avail in eliciting this transcendent Divinity. The only way we can invoke God’s supernatural aid is by transcending our own natural limitations—including those of our own intellect—i.e., through our supra-rational submission to God’s will. On the contrary, our belief in the power of God’s transcendence is expressed specifically by performing the seemingly impossible or irrational feat of infusing physical reality with Divine consciousness—as we do when we celebrate God’s festivals through physical means.55

You must count for yourselves: The lesson of “counting” and “polishing,” the process of spiritual refinement and maturation, continues past Shavuot and applies the whole year round. We should always be counting; every day—even every hour—must be valued as an opportunity for further spiritual growth. At the end of each day, we should know what we accomplished that day and what still remains to be done.

Furthermore, when we count, the number always rises: We must ensure that today is better than yesterday and that tomorrow will be even better than today.56

16 You must count until the day after the seventh week, the fiftieth day: This phrase reads literally, “Until the day after the seventh week, you must count 50 days.” Since, however, the preceding verse enjoins us to count “seven weeks,” i.e., 49 days and no more, the oral tradition informs us that the words “50 days” in this verse can, in context, only mean “the fiftieth day,” as reflected in our translation. And indeed, we only “count the omer” for 49 days.57

Nevertheless, for the purpose of allegory, we can read these words literally. As we have seen,58 there are 50 “gates” of understanding, i.e., 50 general levels of Divine consciousness that we can aspire to attain. These levels are termed “gates” because they are the entryways into different levels of our relationship with God. The first 49 gates are those we can reach through our own efforts, while the fiftieth is the crowning level bestowed upon us by God in recognition of our having successfully attained the first 49 on our own. The 49 days of “counting the omer” correspond to the first 49 gates; on each day of the count, we potentially reach a higher level of Divine consciousness. This is why we count a higher number every day, rather than counting down to the Giving of the Torah. Shavuot, the fiftieth day of the count, is when God gives us the fiftieth gate, in the form of the new revelation of the Torah we receive on this day.

Since the fiftieth gate is a gift from God, we do not count the fiftieth day ourselves. Yet, the Torah (at least literally) directs us to “count 50 days,” accounting the fiftieth day as if we do count it, since the revelation of the fiftieth gate on Shavuot depends upon our cumulative efforts to attain the 49 preceding gates during the 49 days of “counting the omer.”59

In addition, the directive to “count 50 days” may be understood as exhorting us to reach beyond our potential. Everyone’s 49 gates are different, depending on their present level of Divine consciousness. Although we cannot reach what is presently our fiftieth gate on our own, once we have expanded our Divine consciousness, a new array of 50 gates appears before us. Thus, to reach the “fiftieth gate,” in this sense, means to ascend beyond our present plane of consciousness to a new horizon of Divine awareness with its own, new 50 gates.60

The ultimate ascent in Divine consciousness, of course, will occur in the messianic future. Thus, counting the omer also prepares us for the ultimate revelation of the Torah’s deepest dimensions in the messianic era.61

17 They must be baked leavened: The only other leavened grain-offerings offered up in the Temple are the 10 leavened loaves (out of the total 40) accompanying the thanksgiving-offering,62 which is only brought as the offering of an individual. The two leavened loaves of Shavuot are the only communal grain-offering that is leavened. Clearly, then, the fact that this grain-offering is required exceptionally to be leavened expresses an essential facet of its meaning.

Furthermore, we have noted above63 how Shavuot is in all respects a culmination of the process of renewal and maturation that began at Passover, on which leavened grain is severely prohibited. Thus, the passage from Passover to Shavuot appears to be symbolized by the passage from unleavened to leavened bread.

The difference between leavened and unleavened bread, as we have seen,64 is that the former rises, therefore signifying ego, self-awareness, and self-orientation, while the latter remains flat, therefore signifying self-abnegation and selflessness. This being the case, it would seem that the Torah should prohibit the consumption of leavened grain altogether, no only on Passover.

Indeed, in the Temple the overwhelming majority of grain-offerings are unleavened, and even the few leavened ones that are prescribed are explicitly prohibited from being offered up on the Altar.65 The open revelation of the Divine presence in the Temple demands that we evince almost absolute self-abnegation while there.

In contrast, when we leave the Temple precincts in order to fulfill our Divine mission in the material world, which is naturally apathetic or even antagonistic to Divine consciousness, we have to evince at least a modicum of self-assertion in order to impose our Divine vision on a reluctant or inimical world. Therefore, outside the Temple, leavened bread is permitted.

In order to ensure that it is our Divine ego—our Divine soul—that will assert itself, rather than our materialistic human/animal soul, we have to first eschew leavening totally. By undergoing an intense period of self-abnegation at the beginning of our annual spiritual renewal, our Divine soul is empowered to assume the dominant role in our daily consciousness. This is why leavening is forbidden on Passover. The spiritualization and maturation of our human/animal soul then accomplished by the omer offering and the counting of the omer allows us to assert ourselves—to consume chametz—safely. Indeed, once we are ready, the self-assertion signified by chametz is not only permitted but mandatory, since we are intended not only to subdue and refine the human/animal soul but conscript it for our Divine mission. Just as “more produce can be produced when using the power of an ox,”66 we can fulfill our Divine mission much more effectively when we harness the powerful drives of our “inner ox,” our human/animal soul, to the task.

Yet again, according to this explanation, it would seem that unleavened bread should remain forbidden until Shavuot rather than just during Passover, the first seven days of the process. Indeed, we have seen67 that the use of the new crop of wheat for grain-offerings in the Temple is prohibited until Shavuot. Inasmuch as the barley offering brought on the second day of Passover signifies the refinement of the human/animal soul (since barley is primarily used as animal food, as was mentioned above68), the wheat offering brought on Shavuot signifies by contrast the revelation of the Divine soul (since wheat is used primarily as human food, and we fulfill our “human” potential by virtue of our Divine souls). The prohibition of wheat until Shavuot would thus reinforce the notion that until then we have not made the transition from animal/human to Divine consciousness, and are therefore not sufficiently mature to make proper use of ego/chametz.

The answer is that the first of our emotions, chesed, encapsulates within it all seven.69 All emotions are variations on love—even hatred, which appears to be the opposite of love, since we only hate people or things that mean something to us. Thus, once we have refined the chesed of the human/animal soul, we have in a sense rectified all its emotions, and we may therefore begin to make use of the ego in fulfilling our Divine mission.70

21 You must designate this very day as a holy occasion…you must not perform any mundane work:

While both Passover and Sukot are celebrated for an entire week, Shavuot lasts only one day.71 This is because Shavuot is the annual reliving of the revelation that took place when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. This experience of God’s infinite essence transcends the limitations of time; we therefore do not require a full week to assimilate it into the complete array of our emotions.72

24 Remembrance of the shofar blast: The sounding of the shofar on the first day of the year elicits the new, particular influx of Divine energy that will sustain all creation, spiritual and physical, for that year. However, when Rosh HaShanah coincides with the Sabbath, the shofar is not sounded,73 it is only “remembered.”

The reason for this is because on the Sabbath, blowing the shofar is not only superfluous but pointless. As we will see,74 God’s sovereignty over us is the theme of Rosh HaShanah. Sounding the shofar at God’s “coronation” is our declaration of our renewed selfless, voluntary submission to God’s sovereignty on this day. The need for such a declaration, however, implies that we are conscious of ourselves as independent beings who must submit to God intentionally. Such self-awareness characterizes our consciousness on weekdays. On the Sabbath, in contrast, when we are inherently absorbed into our heightened Divine consciousness, such a declaration is redundant.75

34 The Festival of Sukot: As we have mentioned,76 the timing of Sukot coincides with the ingathering of the harvest, after the produce harvested since Passover has dried in the fields under the summer sun. In this context, it is one of the three pilgrim festivals that serve as occasions to praise God for our agricultural sustenance. The three pilgrim festivals also commemorate the Exodus from Egypt: Passover and Shavuot occur on the historical dates of the Exodus and its culmination, the Giving of the Torah; while Sukot commemorates the Clouds of Glory that encircled the people on their desert trek from Egypt to the Land of Israel, as we will see.77 In contrast, the holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are not associated with the agricultural cycle, nor do they explicitly recall the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, we have, in this section of the Torah, two apparently independent sets of holidays: the pilgrim festivals and the “high” holidays.

Nonetheless, the fact that Sukot (and its adjunct holiday, Shemini Atzeret) is observed almost immediately after the holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur naturally associates it with them, and thus, besides its agricultural and historical significance, Sukot possesses a third level of significance, as the conclusion of the “high holiday” period of the month of Tishrei.

In this context, we are taught that on Sukot and Shemini Atzeret, like on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we are meant to renew and revitalize our relationship with God as our king, thereby eliciting the new and enhanced influx of Divine life-force particular to the new year. The difference between the first two and last two holidays is that whereas during the former, we focus on God in ways that engender awe of Him—for which reason these days are known colloquially as the “Days of Awe”—during the latter, we focus on Him in ways that engender love of Him. Thus, what we accomplish on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur through earnest, extended prayer and introspective contrition is accomplished on Sukot and Shemini Atzeret through joy. In particular, the spiritual growth that occurs in the inner recesses of our heart or in the inner chambers of the Temple during the Days of Awe is revealed openly during the Sukot and Shemini Atzeret. This process is alluded to in the verse, “Blow the shofar on the new moon [of Tishrei], on [the day of] concealment, [so that its effect may be revealed] on the day of our festival [Sukot].”78

The observances of Sukot, therefore, mirror the distinctive observances of the Days of Awe:

· The central observance of Rosh HaShanah is the blowing of the shofar. Traditionally, the procedure of blowing the shofar consists of 100 blasts: 60 long blasts (teki’ot), 20 wailing blasts (shevarim), and 20 staccato blasts (teruot).79 These numbers are identical to the numerical values of the letters that make up the word for the “thatching” (סכך) used to cover the sukah: 60, 20, and 20.80

· The seven days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur correspond to the seven days of Sukot.

· The climax of the Yom Kippur rites in the Temple was the incense offering, which produced a cloud of smoke in the Holy of Holies. The facets of Divine revelation embodied in this cloud of smoke are the same as those manifest in the thatching of the sukah, as we will explain presently.81

40 You must take hold of these four plant-parts: The Midrash notes that these four plant-parts differ with regard to their taste and smell. It then notes that taste and fragrance are apt metaphors for contrasting the study of the Torah with the performance of God’s commandments and good deeds in general: Since the benefits of study are enjoyed chiefly by the student, it is represented by taste, inasmuch as taste can only be savored by the person eating the fruit. Since the benefits of good deeds are enjoyed by a wide group of people, it is represented by fragrance, inasmuch as fragrance can be smelled by anyone within a reasonable distance from the fruit.

Based on these associations, the Midrash identifies the four plant-parts as symbols of four types of people categorized according to their religious attainments:

· The citron, which tastes good and smells good, represents those who are rich both in knowledge of the Torah and in good deeds.

· The palm frond, whose fruit (the date) has no smell but tastes good, represents those who study the Torah but are lacking in good deeds.

· The myrtle, which smells good but has no taste, represents those rich in good deeds but deficient in the study of the Torah.

· The willow, which possesses neither a pleasant taste nor scent, represents those who lack both Torah knowledge and good deeds.

Of course, all Jews possess some knowledge of the Torah and are, in the words of the sages, “full of [the merits of fulfillment of God’s] commandments as a pomegranate [is full of seeds]”;82 the difference is only with regard to relative emphasis. Furthermore, inasmuch as the study of the Torah is an intellectual pursuit whereas the pursuit of good deeds reflects emotional commitment, these four categories can also represent the varying degrees of intellectual vs. emotional involvement in religious life:

· The citron represents those who are both intellectually and emotionally involved.

· The palm frond represents those who are involved intellectually but not emotionally.

· The myrtle represents those who are involved emotionally but not intellectually.

· The willow represents those who are neither emotionally nor intellectually involved; their involvement is based solely on their innate faith in God and sense of self-discipline.

By bringing these four plants together, we unify of all the elements of our people. Moreover, each of the four plant-parts expresses unity on it own:83

· The palm frond contains many leaves that grow close together.

· The citron, unlike most fruits, stays on the tree throughout all four seasons.

· Each of the myrtle’s sets of three leaves stem from the same point on the branch.

· Willow plants grow closely together. (The Aramaic word for “willow” [אחוונא]84 is related to the Hebrew word for “brotherhood” [אחוה].)

The fruit of the citron tree: A prerequisite to unity is the absence of egotism. The person represented by the citron, excelling in both the study of the Torah and the observance of its commandments, is most susceptible to feelings of pride for his spiritual achievements. The Hebrew word for “citron” (אתרג) is therefore seen as an acronym for the phrase85 “let not [even] the foot of pride come upon me” (אל תבואני רגל גאוה).86

The willow: As just mentioned, the willow-Jew studies the Torah and observes its commandments on simple faith alone. In a sense, his observance is superior to the experience of the others, since it mirrors the simplicity of the essence of God. Without the interference of mind and heart, the simple person’s essential connection to God is manifest. Although every one of us has this connection to God, it is often obscured by our active intellect and emotions.

Because the willow reflects the unadorned essence of the soul, its expression of unity surpasses that of the other four kinds. Whereas the other kinds embody a self-contained unity—the leaves of each palm frond, for example, are tied and united, but one palm frond does not unite with another—the unity of the willow is expressed in the fact that it grows closely together with other willows.87

Next to a brook: The Torah’s use of the term “brook” in describing the willow is not meant to exclude willows that grow in a field;88 the Torah simply describes where willows are commonly found.89 In contrast, the descriptions of the other three types of plant-parts are exclusionary. For example, the Torah’s description of the citron as “beautiful” (the literal meaning of the word for “stays,” הדר) excludes the use of a dried out citron.90

This distinction reflects the essential virtue of the willow-person, the one who excels neither in the study of the Torah nor the observance of the commandments. The other kinds of Jews are judged by whether they actualize their respective potentials, whether they fit the description given of them by the Torah. The willow-person, in contrast, is judged only by the essence of his soul. The Hebrew word for “willow” (ערבה) also means “sweet,” alluding to the fact that even if a Jew is far from the “brook”—the stream of living waters of the heritage of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the essence of his soul is always intact, and he must therefore be sought after and included in the union of our people.91

Thus, peace and unity are the dominant theme of the commandment to hold the four plant-parts. As we will see,92 they are the essence of the commandment to dwell in a sukah, as well.

Procure for yourselves: Through fulfilling the commandment of holding the four plant-parts, we “take for ourselves”—i.e., internalize—the transcendent consciousness of the sukah. It is therefore customary that when we hold the four plant-parts together we bring them to our heart, so that this energy can be drawn into our hearts, from whence it can spread throughout our entire person.93

42 You must live in huts (sukot): The sukah is unique among the Torah’s commandments in that it is the only one that we physically enter into; the sukah surrounds us on all sides. This property of the sukah is a physical manifestation of the Divine energy that the sukah embodies: God’s transcendence. As mentioned above,94 the sukah derives spiritually from the cloud of incense produced by the high priest on Yom Kippur. Whereas the animal sacrifices focus primarily on refining our human/animal soul, the incense expresses the inner consciousness of our Divine soul.95 Our Divine soul operates on a higher plane than that of our normal, human/animal consciousness; when this soul is manifest, we transcend the limits imposed on our lives by the rationality and emotional predilections of our human/animal soul. Thus, our task on Sukot is first to focus on transcendent Divinity by building the sukah and then to internalize transcendent Divine consciousness by dwelling in the sukah and, as was explained above, by fulfilling the commandment of the four plant-parts.

“Transcendent” is a relative term: as we progressively understand and internalize more of God’s reality, levels of consciousness that we formerly considered “transcendent,” i.e., beyond our grasp, become “immanent,” i.e., part of how we think and live. Commensurately, levels of Divine awareness that we formerly could not even imagine come into view and become the new “transcendent.”

The transcendent consciousness we take from the sukah enables us to transcend differences between us and other people as well as between normally conflicting aspects of our own psyches. The sukah therefore promotes peace. The very fact that the sukah surrounds all who are in it equally reminds us that despite our differences, we can all participate in the same commandment. To enter the sukah, then, is to savor a foretaste of the ultimate peace that will characterize the messianic era.96

You must live in huts (sukot): The requirement to “live” in sukot obligates us to “move into” it by placing our furniture and accessories in it and performing as many of our day-to-day activities in it as possible.97 Thus, unlike other commandments, which involve only a particular limb of the body, the sukah involves the whole person. During Sukot, even mundane, weekday eating becomes a the fulfillment of a commandment when performed in the sukah.

Furthermore, a home is a basic human need, secondary only to food and clothing.98 Even besides fulfilling the need for shelter, a home is a tangible expression of our mastery over the physical world; as such, it is a vital component of the fulfillment of our Divine mission—to make this world into God’s home. Moreover, inasmuch as each of us is required to reveal Divinity in the world in a unique manner, as an expression of our unique Divine souls, a private home is an expression of the personal component of our Divine mission and an essential vehicle for our self-expression. Inasmuch as fulfilling this Divine imperative lies at the bedrock of our psychological makeup, the lack of a place to call home leaves us disoriented and unfocused. The sense of completeness we draw from our home is felt not only when we are in it, but even when we are outside it.

So when, during Sukot, the sukah becomes our home, our domiciliary self-completeness is invested with the holiness of the commandment of living in the sukah. This experience of living inside a Divine commandment and drawing our sense of self-completeness from it enables us to live the rest of the year “surrounded by God’s commandments,” i.e., sanctifying our entire lives, including their most mundane aspects.99

Yet, paradoxically, while the sukah is given an element of permanence, it must be a temporary hut: its roof must be makeshift, and it cannot be taller than 20 cubits (9.6 m or 31.5 ft).100 This paradox conveys an important message: The experience of living in a temporary hut for seven days reminds us that life itself is ephemeral. The seven days of Sukot correspond to the basic human lifespan, described in the Psalms101 as consisting of 70 years.102 By recognizing life’s inherent transience, we protect ourselves from losing our perspective in the illusion of permanence. We can then imbue the world with true permanence and meaning by transforming it into God’s dwelling.103

Chapter 24

11 His mother’s nickname was Shelomit bat Dibri: Although the Torah only uses this woman’s nickname, it still identifies her, thereby apparently shaming her in public when such embarrassment could have been avoided. Needless to say, this seems inconsistent with the lesson the Torah teaches us elsewhere in this regard.104

We must therefore conclude that the Torah is actually praising her by mentioning her name in connection with this incident. The praise consists of the fact that she was singled out by Divine providence to be one through whom the exemplary chastity of the Israelite women was demonstrated.

This, in fact, is the way that transgressions are transformed into merits in general: by serving as catalysts for proper behavior. By serving as a negative example, Shelomit inspired future generations to live up to the example set by our forebears in Egypt.105

12 They placed him in the guardhouse: The Torah does not forbid incarceration; the court is allowed to imprison criminals or suspected criminals when they find it necessary.106 But it never prescribes incarceration as a punishment. Here, too, the curser was not imprisoned as a punishment but simply to detain him while it was determined what should be done.107

As we have pointed out, the Torah’s punishments are not merely punitive; they are intended to rectify the spiritual or material damage that was wrought, enabling the criminal to right the wrong he committed. The Torah therefore considers locking someone up counterproductive, for doing so denies him the opportunity to act.108 Every person exists in this world for a purpose; every moment has its potential that must be fulfilled. These truths apply even to someone who has committed crimes.

If a person has transgressed so terribly that there is no longer hope for him and he can no longer contribute in any way to society, the Torah instructs us to put him to death. Any person who is not deemed liable to death by the Torah, however, is not considered to be beyond salvation.109

Although we may not believe in jails as a worthwhile punishment, we are enjoined to follow the law of the land.110 Based upon the above insight, however, recent moves towards rehabilitative as opposed to purely punitive incarceration are worthy and welcome. Prisoners should be provided with opportunities for education and religious instruction, and furlough and parole programs should be available for those who have proven themselves ready to turn over a new leaf.111

16 One who pronounces the Name of God must be put to death: The word for “pronounce” (נוקב) literally means “to puncture.” Failure to observe any given commandment drills a hole, so to speak, in God’s Name, draining it of its Divine energy. Instead of sustaining and spiritually invigorating all the spiritual and physical worlds, this Divine energy is wasted and may even bolster negativity. Such an act warrants a death penalty, for it, too, has drained the life-blood of existence.112