Seasons - Then and Now

For the week ending 25 April 2015 / 6 Iyyar 5775

Month of Iyar and Sefirat Ha'Omer

by Rabbi Chaviv Danesh
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The Sefer Yetzira, a book attributed to Avraham Avinu, is the classic source that sheds light on the spiritual energies associated with the different months of the year. Describing the month of Iyar, the Sefer Yetzira says that it corresponds to the letter “vav” in the Hebrew alphabet. Even though there are layers of depth behind everything that is written in the Sefer Yetzira, we will nevertheless attempt to understand the Sefer Yetzira’s cryptic statement through the eyes of the commentaries. Since most of the days of Sefirat HaOmer fall out during the month of Iyar, it is incumbent upon us to first delve into the ideas behind the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’Omer.

The Sefer Hachinunch says that the mitzvah of counting the Omer is essentially a counting down to the long-awaited day of receiving the Torah. Similar to a person who is counting down to the day when he will be reunited with his beloved, so too we count down to the glorious day of the giving of the Torah. While this idea is certainly true, it does not fully account for the method we use to count the Omer. According to the above it would be ideal to start the count with the number fifty and count down to Shavuot. However, the system through which we count starts with the number one and counts up to the day of Shavuot. What additional lesson does this method of counting teach us about the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’Omer?

Inspiration and Disappointment

Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen explains that a person’s life consists of two primary stages: inspiration and disappointment. In the beginning of a spiritual journey, G-d gives us an extra boost of inspiration. From the excitement that fills the beginning of a relationship to the enthusiasm that one experiences upon starting a new project, everyone experiences moments of inspiration in life. However this stimulation is only given to us to show us what we are capable of achieving. Therefore, immediately following this stage, the flash of inspiration is taken away, leaving us with the difficult task of trying to get back to that level through our own hard work. Having been earned through self-effort, it is only then that the level that we attain becomes permanent.

It is brought down in the name of the Arizal that during the Exodus the Jewish People went through this cycle of inspiration and letdown. Initially, despite the fact that the Jewish People had spiritually sunk to the 49th level of impurity, G-d nevertheless revealed Himself in ways He had never done before. G-d’s mastery over all parts of creation was made apparent through the ten plagues, while His providence was manifest in the destruction of Egypt, the epitome of evil. When it came to the glorious Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish People were passively lifted up from their downtrodden spiritual state.

However, since the Jewish People did not earn the spiritual heights that they were given, it didn’t last. Consequently, immediately following the Exodus, the Jewish People were bombarded with a series of tests. From lack of food to lack of water there was a sudden halt to the outpouring of kindness they received when they were leaving Egypt. They now had to fulfill their task of creating their own spiritual level and finding G-d in the midst of darkness.

Perhaps now we can understand the lesson behind why we count up to Shavuot (1, 2, 3 etc.) instead of counting down to it (49, 48, 47 etc.). The B’nei Yisaschar says that by starting the count from the number one we emphasize the beginning of a new process of earning step-by-step that which was given to us for free, in one instant, on the first day of Pesach. Each of the 49 days was meant to be an opportunity for the Jewish People to raise themselves out of another one of the 49 levels of impurity through their own effort; thus earning their spiritual level.

Key to Success

The commentaries explain that the way to conquer the second stage of letdown is by remembering and reflecting on the first stage of inspiration. Through vividly reliving the spiritual ecstasy of the first stage one is able to overcome the difficulties of the second stage. The Avodat Yisrael finds a hint to this idea in the verse in Kohelet (7:14) that says, “On a good day be pleased and on a bad day reflect….”In other words, when the stage of inspiration seems to have faded, reflect back on the good days for the motivation to work hard and get back to that level. This is perhaps one idea behind the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus from Egypt everyday. The Exodus from Egypt was the epitome of the first stage where G-d’s hand was revealed and His kindness was apparent. Through remembering and carrying over the message from the Exodus we can tackle the hard battles that lie ahead when G-d’s presence is not clearly manifest.

Now we can begin to get some insight into the Sefer Yetzira’s statement. The letter “vav” is used in Hebrew to connect words, paragraphs, chapters and even different books together by functioning as the symbol for the word “and”. The shape of the letter “vav” looks like a hook, which is also used for connecting. It is of course no accident that the word for hook in Hebrew is also “vav”. We see from here that the essence of the letter “vav” is to function as a bridge between two things. Based on this, Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen explains that the month of Iyar represents the middle stage between the initial, temporary inspiration given on Pesach (in Nissan) and the permanent acquiring of it on Shavuot (in Sivan). It is during this month that the bulk of the days of the Omer fall out and it is specifically on this month that we earn our spiritual level through our own effort and hard work. How is this done? It is only through using the special energy of the letter “vav” that manifests itself in Iyar to hook on to some of the inspiration that was given to us on Pesach. We must then use this inspiration as a bridge to get to the holiday of Shavuot. This is the essence of the letter “vav” and this is the work that is expected of us during the month of Iyar.

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