Parashot Behar-Behukotai: Counting days and blessings

In the first half of this week's double portion of Behar-Behukotai the Bible is commanding us to count the seven cycles of the sabbatical years

behukotai 88 (photo credit: )
behukotai 88
(photo credit: )
"You shall count for yourself seven cycles of sabbatical years, seven years, seven times; the years of the seven cycles of sabbatical years shall be for you forty-nine years…. you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants…. it shall be a Jubilee year for you…." - (Leviticus 25:8-13) The portions in the Book of Leviticus - Tazria, Metzora, Emor and Behar - are nearly all fixated on the commandment to count. Barely two chapters ago we were commanded, "And you shall count for yourselves - from the day following the rest day (the first day of the festival of Passover), from the day when you bring the Omer of the waving - seven weeks... until the day after the seventh week you shall count fifty days...." (Leviticus 33:15,16); the Bible has commanded us to count each day of the seven weeks between the Festivals of Passover and Shavuot, until the 50th day. And now in the first half of this week's double portion of Behar-Behukotai the Bible is commanding us to count the seven cycles of the sabbatical years (seven times seven or 49 years) until the 50th year, the Jubilee year. Clearly, there is a significant parallel between these two commandments of counting. Similarly, both men and women are commanded to count seven days, after which - on the eighth day - they undergo ritual immersion and purity. All of these "countings" must in some way be related. The count from Passover to Shavuot is - at least from a clear biblical perspective - the count from freedom from slavery to our entry into Israel and Jerusalem. On Passover we left Egypt and Egyptian enslavement; however, we only got as far as the desert, with all of the uncertainties and all of the alien and difficult climatic and agricultural conditions of the desert. It is specifically Shavuot which is biblically defined as the festival of the first fruits of Israel which our Sages ordain must be brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (Lev. 23:17). The Bible underscores the relationship between Shavuot and the Land of Israel when it mandates the special declaration to be made by the Israelite upon bringing his fruits to the Temple altar (Deut. 26:1, 2). Passover is therefore our freedom from Egypt and slavery; whereas Shavuot is our entry into Israel and Jerusalem, with the Holy Temple. This idea is even further deepened by the text of the Haggada read during the Passover Seder. The Mishna (in Arvei Pessahim) teaches that the central part of our retelling of the Exodus from Egypt is an explication of the very verses which the individual must read when he brings the first fruits: we are to explicate around the Seder table "from 'Arami oved avi' (An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather) until the end of that portion (Deut. 26:5-10)." However, we do not explicate the entire speech; the Haggada neglects to include the last two verses of the declaration of the one who brings the first fruits. The Haggada quotes: "An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather; he descended to Egypt… became great, strong and numerous. The Egyptians… afflicted us... we cried out to the Lord our God who heard our voice, saw our affliction, and took us out of Egypt with a strong hand… with signs and with wonders" (Deut. 26:5-8). However, the final two verses, "He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now behold I have brought the first fruits of the earth that you have given me, O Lord" (ibid. 26:9, 10), are deleted by the author of the Haggada. I heard it said in the name of a great talmudic giant of the last century that the reason for this deletion is that our entry into the Land of Israel is only destination and not destiny. I would respectfully maintain that the very opposite is the case. Our sojourn in Egypt and even our escape from Egypt were very much directed by God and were part and parcel of Jewish fate. However, our entry into Israel, our establishment of our Holy Temple in Jerusalem and our ability to influence the world to accept a God of morality and peace through the teachings of the Holy Temple - which the Prophets mandate as the true mission of the Temple (Isaiah 2, Micah 4) - are very much dependent upon our own actions and sanctity as a nation. It was the desert which was a temporary destination; Israel and Jerusalem are the Jewish destiny of being a light unto the nations of the world, so that humanity may be redeemed. That is why the Bible commands "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year" within the context of our counting of the Sabbatical years leading up to the Jubilee. The very term Jubilee is either identified with the word for Shofar or ram's horn - the instrument used as our call to repentance - or derives from the Hebrew yovel which means "he [the nation] shall lead" the entire world back to God. The very Jubilee year is biblically defined as a declaration of universal freedom and the return of every individual to his homestead, obvious expressions of redemption. This march from national freedom from Egyptian slavery to security in our own land from which we must realize our mission to bring peace to the world is expressed by counting or sefira. The Hebrew s-p-r also means to tell, to recount, to clarify - which is the real commandment of the Seder night of sipur yetziat mitzraim (the telling of the Exodus from Egypt). The same root s-p-r also appears in the description of the throne of the Divine at the time of the revelation at Sinai, which is like "the white of the sapphire (sapir) and the purity of the heavens" (Exodus 24:10). From this linguistic perspective, it becomes necessary to understand the commandment to count - sefira - as a commandment to become pure and to move closer to the throne of the Almighty, both in the case of the ritually impure as well as in the march of Israel from Egyptian idolatry to Divine purity. Since there is no redemption without repentance and purification, we now understand why Shavuot is also the time when we receive the Torah from God - our road map to purity and redemption - and why Shavuot is truly the festival of our destiny. We now also understand why mystical and hassidic literature refers to the emanations of the Divine in this world as sefirot. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.