After 49 days of counting, Passover and Shavuot – the holidays linking physical and spiritual redemption – finally come together this weekend.
We began our journey by exiting Egypt and forging a nation; we conclude with the receipt of the Torah at Mount Sinai and our charge to become a holy people.
Though connected to each other, Passover and Shavuot are markedly different in the eternal message they convey to us.
The great Jewish thinker of the 20th century Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes the point-counterpoint between Passover and the period of counting immediately following it, leading into Shavuot. Passover, he says, represents perfection. God intervened in history in an unparalleled fashion, performing countless miracles for us, in order to solve all our problems and elevate us to dizzying heights.
We became almost angelic; the humblest servant, notes the Midrash, saw a greater revelation of God at the Splitting of the Sea than did even Ezekiel, the prophet whose visions are legendary. Say the Rabbis, “Whatever one wishes for on Passover will be granted to him!” But the counting of the Omer, which follows the first day of Passover, symbolizes imperfection! Because whatever number we may be at today, tomorrow will, by necessity, be a bigger and greater number. If Passover represents perfection, then counting symbolizes man’s need to always strive to achieve more tomorrow than he did today, to reach ever closer to the Almighty in holiness.
And that is why we count up, not down, moving always in an upward progression. It is precisely the determination not to be content with our present state, to want more, to do more, to battle against stagnation and inertia, that ultimately builds character and defines greatness.
And that is also why we never do come to the end of our counting. Despite the Torah’s explicit command to count 50 days, we stop at 49 and never quite reach that elusive goal.
For 50 represents the achievement that is just beyond, the one to which we should always aspire. By refusing to settle for today’s accomplishment, we make possible tomorrow’s newest plateau.
Indeed, the Torah itself, though it comes from God, who is perfect, is purposely written in an incomplete – imperfect, if you will – fashion. It has no punctuation marks: no periods to indicate a sentence’s end, no question marks or exclamation points to signal the tone of the verse. It is left tantalizingly open for interpretation, beckoning to one and all to study it, to ponder its meaning and to add his or her own slant, contemporary insight or hidush (innovative observation) to the ancient text.
Like any great piece of art, be it a poem or a painting, it is the very ambiguity and expansiveness of the text and the endless possibilities that lie hidden within that give the Torah its eternal attraction and endless fascination.
The Torah’s faithful partner is Israel, which shares this same sense of perfect imperfection.
Among the many excuses that our Diaspora family gives for not answering the call of God and history and committing to life in Israel is that “the Jewish state is imperfect.”
While I think we can all pretty much agree on that astute observation, what difference does it make? Is there any place on Earth that is “perfect” – at least for Jews? Let’s say it openly and clearly: There has never, ever been an Israel more perfect than the one we have today. You’re skeptical? Do you think that the period of the Temple – either the First or Second – was more perfect than our own? Well, both those Temples were destroyed, and the nation with them, for a multitude of sins – too many to list here. And if you think the era of King Solomon was more pristine, more unified, more “holy” than our own, let us not forget that God angrily swore to tear the kingdom away from Solomon’s family due to Solomon’s unholy excesses (see I Kings 11:11).
There is a strong case to be made for our current era as the best of all time. We have built a stunningly majestic country, from the lush hills of the Golan to the crystal blue waters of Eilat.
We have the world’s most sophisticated technology, the finest army, a vibrant, democratic society that is, begrudgingly, the envy of all our neighbors, who are awash in conflict and chaos. We have grown 1,100 percent since we declared independence, and are now the world’s largest Jewish community; we will soon contain an absolute majority of the world’s Jews – if we don’t already. On a spiritual level, we are in the Golden Age of Torah study; with religious amenities and opportunities unparalleled in history (excuse me while I decide which of Israel’s 2,000 kosher restaurants I’ll be dining at next week).
At the same time, we are also blessed with problems of every sort, shape and size. But that’s okay; that just reminds us that we are a work in progress, that our mandate and mission are far from finished. The excitement of Israel is commensurate with its challenges; it is because we have so many mountains to climb that the adrenalin flows so freely here. It is the ideal place for a Jew to live – precisely because of all the rough spots yet to be smoothed out and the dreams yet to be realized.
Perfection lacks passion and breeds passivity.
But imperfection creates innovation and industriousness and stirs the soul.
God bless perfect little Israel, in all its imperfection.The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana City Council; [email protected]