Parashat Tazria-Metzora: The freedom to be free

In my celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut at home, at the "traditional" barbecue with my family, I precede my blessing over wine with a recitation of the chapter of the dry bones which come to life (Ezekiel 37).

April 18, 2007 10:43
4 minute read.

"And she shall count the seven days after her impurity" (Lev. 15:28). These words are being written before the end of Pessah (Passover), when the counting of the Omer has already begun. How can one square the headlines of Israeli papers with our festival of freedom? And if indeed the days between Pessah and Shavuot are a kind of hol hamoed (intermediate days) between our Festival of Freedom and our Festival of First Fruits celebrated in Jerusalem, how can one rejoice on Independence Day (Yom Ha'atzmaut) with the perennial threat of Kassam rockets and the growing existential threat of a nuclear Iran? In order to understand, we must first probe the hidden significance of matza, as well as the curious lack of a name for the festival of Shavuot; "the feast of weeks" seems hardly appropriate, since this connotes the period leading up to the festival rather than the festival itself! There are many commentators who see the word matzot (plural of matza) as being identical with the word mitzvot (plural of mitzva, a divine command), since the same Hebrew letters can spell either; and then, conversely, hametz must be identified with sin. How does this fit the fact that on Shavuot - the climax of Pessah, when we think of the Omer count as linking them together - we must bring two loaves of hametz and not matza as our Temple offering? When we remember that the very first Seder took place on the 15th of Nisan, before midnight, and thus before the slaughtering of the Egyptian firstborn, and while the Israelites were still slaves (see Exodus 12), we realize that Pessah cannot possibly be our Festival of Freedom; at best, it's the festival of our expected freedom. Indeed, even after we left Egypt the next morning, we only got as far as the desert! Actual freedom had to wait until Shavuot, the day of the Revelation at Sinai, and the time when we could later bring the first fruits of our Israeli produce to our Temple. This period of true freedom and redemption remains elusive to this day; perhaps that's why Shavuot has not yet acquired a name of its own. But nevertheless, we are commanded to count the days between Pessah and Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15), just as we are commanded to count the years between the Sabbatical years and between the twice-a-century Jubilee years (Lev. 25:8-12): each is an aspect of the march from redemption promised to redemption attained. And the Hebrew word for counting is sefira, the very word used in our portion, wherein a ritually impure woman is commanded to count seven days before her purification. The root noun of sefira is sapir, the blue-white color identified with divine purity and revelation (Exodus 24:10), and which has therefore become the symbol of the commandments (through the blue-and-white ritual fringes) and of the flag of the modern state. The message is clear: we must remain eternally grateful for the initial signs of freedom, as well as for the divine promise that we will ultimately attain it - and we must even take heed to celebrate our days of preparation, during which we attempt to purify ourselves religiously and politically. And so we count the days between Pessah and Shavuot, even though Shavuot remains a time not yet realized but very much worthy of striving toward. We link our Pessah Seder to our vision of redemption by expounding the passage of the Bible recited by the Jew bringing his first fruits to the Holy Temple, arami oved avi (Haggada). And we revel in the fact that both Independence Day and Jerusalem Day come out during the count between Pessah and Shavuot - a sign that our goal is closer than it has been! It is also fascinating that although the Mishna (Pesahim 10) ordains that we recite arami oved avi (Deut. 26:1-11) until its conclusion, the Haggada deletes the last three verses: "'And He brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land which You have given me, O Lord.' And you shall place it before the Lord your God and you shall bow down before the Lord your God. And you shall rejoice for all the good which the Lord your God has given you and your household, you and the Levite and the stranger who is in your midst." Apparently, at least one negative result of our 2,000-year-long exile was the deletion of these lines from the Seder we had been celebrating on foreign soil. In my celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut at home, at the "traditional" barbecue with my family, I precede my blessing over wine with a recitation of the chapter of the dry bones which come to life (Ezekiel 37), followed by a recitation of these three verses deleted by the Haggada; these words serve as a confirmation of God having brought us back to our homeland, and are thus a statement of hope and faith that we may soon see the restoration of the first-fruits ceremony at the Temple. Redemption is a process, and this is the message of the "Dayenu" song of the Seder. Because of the familiarity of its tune we sometimes overlook its message, which is teaching us how to be grateful for all the advances we have made, rather than to be disappointed because of the periodic retreats, and what remains to be accomplished. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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