Ways of Counting Time: The Omer Controversy
A shiur at Aish HaTorah
Rabbi Sacks delivered this shiur to over 500 yeshiva and seminary students in Jerusalem on Wednesday 18th May 2016. The event was hosted by Aish HaTorah in their building overlooking the Kotel (the Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Download the accompanying mekorot / source sheet here.
Kvod haRabbanim, beloved friends, it’s great to be with you. I can’t tell you how jealous I am of you, all of you, right now, because you’re having this wonderful opportunity. Linshom et ha’avir, to breathe the air of Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel], of Yerushalayim Ir Hakadeish [Jerusalem, the holy city], and Har Habayit. Avir shel Eretz Yisrael machkim, it makes you a kind of different person. And this is it, this is the centre of kedushah for the whole world. And please breathe in as much of it as you can. You don’t have to hold your breath for the next, many years of your lifetime, but the way to make sure the inspiration stays is to share it with others. So when you go back to wherever you are going to, share the Torah, share the ru’ach that you’ve absorbed here in Israel and Jerusalem and may Hashem bless all you do. And may you be a source of bracha to all who know you.
Guys, have you all got mekorot [source sheet]? Good, lovely, then you don’t need me, I’ll leave you to it.
I would like if I may to simply learn with you, one of the famous machlokot [dispute between the Sages’ regarding a mitzvah] in Jewish history, which left, and leaves a mark, even to this day. And I want to look at it first of all on the surface, and then dig deep down beneath the surface. You get that feeling here. In Jerusalem, the further down you deep, dig, there are layers and layers and layers below the surface. And that’s what I want to do here, in the case of Sefirat HaOmer. Now, you know that the source of the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer, we are in a slight time dissonance because in chutz la’aretz we’re a week behind you in Kriyat HaTorah. You have just read parshas Emor, yes? Last Shabbos. And we’re about to read it this coming Shabbos, but one way or another, the source is in Parshat Emor.
And it’s source one, “U’sfartem lachem mimacharat hashabbat miyom haviachem et omer hatnufah sheva shabbatot t’mimot tihiyenah (Leviticus 25:15).” So you should begin to count Mimocharat HaShabbat, on the day after Shabbat, the day you bring the Omer and they shall be seven complete weeks, ”Ad mimacharat hashabbat hashviit tisparu chamishim yom (Leviticus 23:16)”. You will count 50 days until the conclusion of seven complete weeks.
And the question arose, as you know, and became a huge argument as to what is the meaning Mimocharat HaShabbat. What does those two words mean? The plain sense is what? Mimocharat HaShabbat means the day after Shabbat, which means Sunday. That is the plain sense. But then the question is which Sunday and why? And does it really mean Sunday here? Be aware, that the Jewish year revolves around two different concepts of time. There is weekly time, of which Shabbat is the culmination. And then there is annual time, which is when we celebrate the mo’adim and the mikraei kodesh, the fixed times and the Holy gatherings and they’re different kinds of time.
The annual time, as you know, is a mix in Judaism between the solar and lunar calendars. In other words, the month is a lunar phenomenon. The word month comes from the word moon. That’s a ‘moonth’, that’s what it was originally. So a month is a lunar phenomenon. The seasons, aviv, the spring for Pesach, the grain harvest for Shavuot, t’kufat hashanah, the season of in-gathering, Succot, these are seasonal. And the seasons are determined by the sun. So one way or another, the Jewish calendar is a complex blend of lunar and solar. But Shabbat has nothing to do with either the lunar year or the solar year. Shabbat is not something in nature. There never was a week in nature. It’s a Jewish invention, eventually adopted by Christians, Muslims, and thus taken to the world. But the seven-day-week, its origin is in the Torah.
And therefore we have two different cycles of time. On the one hand, you’ve got the festivals, which are the seasonal calendar. And on the other hand, you’ve got Shabbat, which is a time zone in and of itself, who’s source is the beginning of creation, of God resting on the seventh day. And therefore they have two different time zones, so it is odd to find the phrase Mimocharat HaShabbat in a passage dealing with the calendar year. And that is what generated the controversy. So the plain sense is, Mimocharat HaShabbat means you start counting on Sunday and Shavuot, according to that will always fall on a Sunday. Question is which Sunday, the Sunday in Pesach or the Sunday after Pesach. But there it is.
And the perushim, the Pharisees, whose descendants we are, said no, there is such a thing as Torah Sheb’al Peh, not just the Torah Shebichtav. Not only is there a Written Torah but there is an Oral Torah that explicates the Written Torah, and according to the Torah Sheb’al Peh, Mimocharat HaShabbat means the day after the first day of the festival. That’s why we start counting Sefirat HaOmer on the sixteenth of Nissan. The first day of Pesach is the fifteenth of Nissan and Mimocharat HaShabbat, the day after that, is the sixteenth of Nissan and that was the Torah Sheb’al Peh. So what actually happened was that in Bayit Sheini [Second Temple] times, in the times of the second temple, Chazal talk about it a lot, theres a whole sugiya in Massechet Gittin, but if you really want to understand what was going on you have to read a contemporary historian, an eyewitness of those times, Josephus. Josephus talks about the incredible divisions within the jewish people at the end of the second temple period. So we had, anyone know what the groups were called?
There were Boethusians, [baitanim], there were Tzedokkim (the Sadducees), there were the Asiim (the Essenes), there were a whole group of different sects and they all had different shittot. In addition to that, since 1947, we have known about the existence of a sect in the Dead Sea, the Qumran sectarians, whose literature was discovered in 1947, the Dead Sea Scrolls. So they were a dissident sect, mainly of Kohanim, who were appalled by what they saw as the corruption of the kehunah in the Temple, and they went and founded their own community in Qumran.
There were also other Jews, whom you will know from walking around the streets in Israel, the Ethiopian Jews. And the Ethiopian Jews were separated from the main body of Jewish life for many centuries, for maybe 2000 years. So it turns out that there was not one shitta but four different shittot as to when Shavuot falls.
According to the Tzedokkim, Shavuot falls on the Sunday, the 50th day after the Sunday that falls in Chol HaMoed Pesach. Or part of, the first Shabbos of Pesach, you begin counting after that, and seven weeks later you celebrate Shavuot, always on a Sunday. The Qumran sectarians held that you started counting the Sunday after Pesach and they had a fixed calendar. So according to the Qumran sectarian, Shavuot always fell on the 15th of Sivan, which was always on a Sunday. They had a whole shitta all of their own. The perushim (and we) hold that you count Sefirat HaOmer from the second night of Pesach. So for us, Shavuot usually falls, while nowadays it always falls, on the sixth of Sivan. That when the calendar was fixed by eyewitness, you had the possibility that the two months of Nissan and Iyar were both short, or one long and one short, or both long.
So you could have Shavuot falling either on the fifth, or the sixth, or the seventh of Sivan. And you had the Ethiopians who celebrated Shavuot, they started Sefirat HaOmer on the night of the last day of Pesach, right? So they held Mimocharat HaShabbat means, first of all, not Saturday. But Mimocharat HaShabbat they understood as ‘the day after the last day of the festival’. So they always celebrated it six or seven days later than anyone else.
The end result was chaos. If you ever come across something in science called Chaos Theory, you know the story, you know chaos theory? Chaos Theory is the beating of a butterfly’s wing in the South Pacific, who causes a tsunami in Los Angeles. That is chaos theory. I always thought chaos theory was the theory of Jewish history, but it turns out that actually about the science and physics. So you had four different days on which four different groups of Jews were celebrating Shavuot. And the end result is still apparent to this day.
Does anyone know why we keep two days yom tov in chutz la’aretz?
Student: Cause there was a safeik [doubt] about which day was which and they kept it until nowadays anyways because of…
Yeah, they didn’t know in advance, in Jerusalem, when, had they consecrated “Today is Rosh Chodesh”, or did they wait till tomorrow? Did the eidim, the eye witnesses, come in time and so on. And you all think that they didn’t have technology in those days that we have now, instantaneous global communication. They didn’t have WhatsApp. They didn’t have it. How did we live without WhatsApp? Right.
So that’s why we celebrate two days of yom tov in chutz la’aretz. It’s absolutely not so. They had instantaneous communication in Bayit Sheini times. And what was it called? It was called bonfires. So they lit bonfires what, the first one here in Yerushalayim, and then they had a series of hills on which they had bonfires stretching to Israel to Bavel. So in Babylon, they knew, instantly, which day is Rosh Chodesh. So even in Bayit Sheni times, they only kept one day of Yom Tov in chutz la’aretz. However, mishekilklu hacuti’im. It’s when the Cutheans, or the Boethusians, sabotaged the bonfire. They deliberately, on occasion, lit the bonfire on the wrong day. And if you’re the guy on the next hill, you can see the bonfire, but you can’t see from 100 miles distance, whether the person who lit the bonfire was your kind of Jew or not your kind of Jew. So once you sabotaged the bonfires, there was no way of knowing, and that was when the Beit Din instituted sheyihiyu sh’luchim yotzim, that emissaries should go out. And it took them time to take the news to Babylon.
So the reason we celebrate two days Yom Tov in chutz la’aretz, is not because our ancestors couldn’t communicate fast enough, it was because of disagreements among Jews. So everyone always asks me, “Rabbi Sacks, can’t you do something about second day Yom Tov in chutz la’aretz? Just abolish it, it’s not relevant anymore.” And I say, “I really will. The day there are no arguments among Jews, we will abolish second day Yom Tov. But don’t hold your breath.”
Okay, so there it is. I don’t know whether you’re interested in knowing, actually, who is right on this one. But maybe I’ll just tell you on this, because it’s an interesting thing. Actually, the solution to the whole problem of what Mimocharat HaShabbat means, is solved, as soon as you look at the linguistic structure of the order of the chaggim, in parshat Emor. You know, we have five different passages dealing with the chaggim in the Torah. Two of them are very short, two of them appear in Sefer Shemot. You have the third in parshat Emor, chapter 23. You have the fourth in chapters 28 and 29 of Sefer Bamidbar. And the fifth in chapter 16 of Devarim. And they’re all different, and they all use different language, and they have different focuses, different dimensions of the festival.
And if you have a look, in parshat Emor, there you will see it’s the only parsha in which every Yom Tov is called Shabbaton. Succot, the first day of Succot is called Shabbaton. Rosh Hashanah is called Shabbaton, Shemini Atzeret is called Shabbaton, and two days, Shabbat, and Yom Kippur, are called Shabbat Shabbaton. So in Emor, when you see a word Shabbat or Shabbaton, that means festival. It doesn’t mean Saturday. Because Shabbat, like Yom Kippur, is described in this chapter, and this chapter only, as Shabbat Shabbaton. It’s the only chapter, incidentally, in which Shabbat is also called a moed and a mikra kodesh. It’s the only chapter in all of Tanach!
So now, when the Chazal came along, and said Torah Sheba’al Peh, tells Mimocharat HaShabbat, we know if that occurs in chapter 23 of parshat Emor, Shabbat means Yom Tov, it doesn’t mean Shabbat. Because that’s the only the chapter in Torah where Shabbat is not just called Shabbat, but Shabbat Shabbaton. Why did it use the phrase Mimocharat HaShabbat?
And the answer is… can you see, have I got it here? If you see source five, have a look carefully at source five. This also from the same chapter. Can you see? “BaChodesh harishon b’arba’ah assar lachodesh ben ha’arbayim Pesach laHashem.” (Leviticus 23:5) On the fourteenth of Nissan, in the evening, in the afternoon, it is Pesach to God. “Uvachamishah asar yom lachodesh hazeh, Chag HaMatzot laHashem, shivat yamim matzot tochailu.” (Lev. 23:6). And on the 15th, that’s Chag HaMatzot.
Do you see what’s happening here? We think Pesach and Chag HaMatzot are the same thing. It’s a seven or eight day festival, beginning on the 15th of Nissan. What is the Massechet called, the Talmudic, or the Mishnaic tractate called that deals with Chag HaMatzot? What’s it called? Pesachim, right? It’s called Pesachim. So since Second Temple times, we have called Pesach ‘Pesach’, but the Bible doesn’t call Pesach ‘Pesach’, it calls it Chag HaMatzot. What is the date? What is Pesach? The afternoon before Chag HaMatzot. When the Korban Pesach was offered up.
And the big difference between the 14th of Nissan, and the 15th of Nissan is the 15th of Nissan was a Yom Tov, you can’t do any work. But the 14th was not a Yom Tov, you could do work. It’s a minhag [tradition] not to work, but never mind. Halachically, you may work on the 14th of Nisan. So there’s no . So if the Torah had said Mimocharat HaPesach, we wouldn’t know what it’s talking about. Are talking about Pesach, 14th of Nisan, or are you talking about Chag HaMatzot, the 15th of Nissan? So we don’t know.
Had the Torah said the day after Pesach, we wouldn’t know. So it tells us Mimocharat HaShabbat, which means, in the context of parshat Emor, on the day after the day when work is forbidden. And that’s the 15th of Nisan. So actually, the Sadducees, and Qumran sect, and the Ethiopians. Oh, not the Ethiopians, sorry. I take that back. But the Karaites, and the Sadducees, and the Boethusians all got it wrong. They got it wrong. This is not mere tradition. Tradition is clarifying what actually linguistic analysis could clarify. Because, Mimocharat HaShabbat, clearly in the context of parshat Emor means the day after the first day of the festival. And it’s called the first day of the festival, because the day before was also a festival, but there was no issur melachah. There was no obligation to rest, which is what the word Shabbat means. Okay?
So now we’ve solved the problem. Okay. But now, I want to go beneath the surface. We’re going to do a bit of archaeology here. Now can we work out why the Sadducees, the Boethusians thought that Shavuot should always fall on a Sunday. Do we have any guesses here? Why should every festival be a fixed day of the year, but not a fixed day of the week. Yeah? How come Shavuot is unique? That it has to be a fixed day of the week, as Sunday? Anyone know? Anyone think? Yeah
Student: It says, U’sfartem lachem Mimacharat HaShabbat, you should count 49 days after Shabbat, and they say that Shabbat is literally Saturday.
Yeah. Yeah, but according to them, why did God make Shavuot different from any other festival? That it had to fall on a Sunday? I mean, our festivals can fall any day of the week, they just have to fall on a particular day of the year.
So have a look in the Gemara. Do you have a look, source two? Shehayubaitusin amorim: Azteret acher HaShabbat (Menachot 65a). The Boethusians argued Shavuot (they called Shavuot Atzeret) always falls acher Shabbat, that is always falls on a Sunday. Nitpal lahem Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai v’amar lahem: shotim manayin lachem, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai was debating with these Boethusians and saying “shotim manayin lachem”, How’d you get this idea? V’lo haya adam etzchat shehi meshovo, chotz mizaken echad, sh’ha m’patpet c’negdo v’omer. There was one guy who had the guts to argue against Rabbi Yochan Ben Zakkai. And he said, “Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, I’ll tell you why Moshe Rabbeinu instituted that Shavuot should always be on Sunday. Moshe Rabbeinu ohev Yisrael hiya.“
Moses loved Jews. So he decided, v’yadeh sh’atzeret yom echad hu. And he knew that Shavuot, when you have some rest, how many days is Shavuot? One day. What kind of holiday is one day? Okay? So Pesach, you get a week. Succot you get a week. Shavuot you only get one day. But Moshe Rabbeinu was an ohev Yisrael. Amad v’tiknah achar shabbat k’day shihu Yisrael mitan’gin sh’nei yamim. Moshe Rabbeinu invented the long weekend.
You saw it, it’s the leader in today’s or yesterday’s Jerusalem Post. It’s now, “Shall Sunday become a day of rest here in Israel again?”, Moshe Rabbeinu invented the long weekend. Here were people tired out from seven weeks in the field, gathering in the grain, they need a break. Come Shavuot, it’s only one day, what kind of a break is that? So Moshe Rabbeinu instituted it should always be on Sunday, so you get Shabbat and Sunday, a two day break, you’re relaxed. And that is the reason, the only reason, in the entire Rabbinic literature where we find a Tzeddoki, or a Kutti explaining why Shavuot always fell on Sunday. That’s the only source. And that’s there on the surface, you can see it’s a Gemara in Menachos.
I want to go a little deeper here. What was Sefirat HaOmer? It’s the counting of the Omer, which was the first sheaf of the barley harvest. Where else in the Torah do we find the word “omer“? There’s only one other place in the whole Torah, where we find the word “omer“. Anyone know? Yeah?
Student: Joseph and his dreams of the sheaves of wheat…
Yeah, the same root appears in the story of the binding of sheaves and the eleven sheaves bowing down. But the actual word “omer” appears in connection with the manna that fell. If you have look in that text, which I’ve brought for you in source six, which is from the 16th chapter of Shemot, you will find, in that chapter, where the people are complaining about the food.
I have to tell you a little story. When I used to be Chief Rabbi, I used to go around the world, and we had a Jewish community in Hong Kong. In 1997, the Brits had to give it back. It was overdue, like a library book that was overdue. They had to give it back to the Chinese. So when I went on a visit, if there had been a change in the Head of State, I would always go and meet the Head of State. So in Hong Kong, in my earlier visits, before ’97, we went to the governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. But after ’97, when it went back to China, I went to meet the first Beijing appointee, Mister Tung Chee-hwa, who turned out to be a big lover of Jews and Judaism, and the State of Israel. And he said to me the following. He said, “Rabbi Sacks, you Jews and we Chinese have been around a long time.” He said, “You Jews have been here 6,000 years, we have been here, the Chinese, 5,000 years. I always wanted to know what did you do for the first thousand years before you had kosher Chinese takeaways?”
So I said, “Mr. Tung , you want to know what we did for the first thousand years when we had no kosher Chinese takeaways? We complained about the food.” So that is what happens exactly in Shemot chapter 16, they complain about the food. So HaKadosh Baruch Hu says I’ll send you food, don’t worry about it. And I will send you quail and I will send you manna. And they get up the next day, and they see this thing like dew, and they don’t know what it is. And they said, ”Man hu, mah zeh?” (Exodus 16:14), and that’s what its name became. And that’s the manna.
The miracle about the manna, as the Torah says repeatedly, that whether they gathered a lot or a little, a miracle happened that each one gathered only one omer. That was for everyone. And on Friday, two omers fell, one for Friday, one for Shabbos, so they wouldn’t gather on Shabbat. And that’s why to this day, we have to challot on Friday night in zecher l’man, as a memory for the manna. And the word omer appears in that chapter six times and it’s the only other place that the word omer appears in Torah. So the question is, when did the manna start falling? You understand, what had they been eating until then? They’ve been travelling for several days before they start complaining about the food. What had they been eating until then?
And what do we call matzah? Lechem oni, the bread of affliction. So you can understand a group like the Tzedokim and the Samaritans and the Karaites, they’re saying, “What is Sefirat HaOmer?” What are we celebrating when we offer up the omer? We are celebrating having come through slavery, lechem oni, the bread of affliction. This is the bread of freedom. This shows that we’re out of Egypt and we’re now no longer under Pharaoh, we’re under Hakadosh Baruch Hu, and He’s sending us manna. That is the bread of freedom.”
Now, when did the manna start falling? Does anyone know?
Student: One month after.
Exactly, on the 15th of Iyar. But what day of the week did it fall? It fell on Sunday. This manna began falling on Sunday. You’ll see here, right? Can you see source seven? Bachamishah asar yom (Exodus 16:1), this happened on the 15th of Iyar. Nitpareish hayom shel chanayah zoo (Rashi ibid). Says Rashi, it explains this particular day of encampment, lfi shebo vayom kaltah hachararah shehotziyu mimitzrayim v’hutzrachu laman (ibid), because that was the day the supply of matzah ran out and they needed food.
Lamadnu she’achlu mish’rarei habatzek shishim v’achat s’udot. They ate two meals a day in those days. And they took with them 61 portions of matzoh each one. So after 30 days, on the 31st day, they’ve found that the matzah had run out.
V’yarad lahem man b’shishah asar b’iyar v’yom rishon b’shabbat hayah, and the manna fell on the 16th, and that was Sunday. And all of Chazal agree that the manna fell on Sunday because Hakadosh Baruch Hu said to Moshe Rabbeinu, and he told the Israelites, “You shall eat manna for six days, and on the sixth day, a double amount will fall.” Which implies, according to everyone, Leik man d’palig, everyone in the Talmud Bavli, every one of the Tana’im and Amora’im agreed that the manna began falling on Sunday. And therefore, although we don’t find this anywhere, it makes sense that for them, this is why we begin Sefirat HaOmer on Sunday.
Why? Because Sefirat HaOmer is zecher l’man, it’s a memory of the manna that fell for our ancestors in the wilderness. And why was there a mitzvah to remember it? Because that was the bread of freedom, which supplanted the bread of affliction. So when we start bringing the omer, we know we’re on our way to freedom. And that begins on a Sunday. That is their shitta. I mean, nowhere does it say this, but I’m conjecturing that was their shitta. Now what was the shitta that says no? That Mimocharat HaShabbat means not Sunday, but the day after Chag HaMatzot, the day after the first day of Pesach.
Now, in source three, the Rambam explains exactly why, but I’m not going to ask you to read that. Just have a look in chapter four, which is the proof text for the Rambam. Do you have it? This is from the Haftorah of the first day of Pesach. And it says the following. Can you read there, in source four, chapter five of the book of Joshua where it says ‘yud’. Vayavhanu b’nei yisrael bagilgal (Joshua 5:10). They encamped in Gilgal. They’ve crossed the Jordan, they’ve entered the promised land. Vaya’asu et hapesach b’arba’ah asar yom lachodesh baerev b’aravot y’richo (ibid), and they celebrated Pesach on the 14th. That is the Korban Pesach in the afternoon in the plains of Jericho, Vayoch’lu ha’aretz mimacharat hapesach (Joshua 5:11). And after that, they ate from the produce of the land, matzot v’kalui b’etzem hayom hazeh. They had matzahs and ears of corn on that day. Vayishbot haman mimacharat. (Joshua 5:12) And the manna ceased the next day, b’achlam meavur ha’aretz, when they started eating the produce of the land. In other words, as the Rambam explains, when did this happen? What phrase does the book of Joshua use? Can you see…?
Mimacharat HaPesach, right? That’s where the phrase appears. And the Rambam uses this proof that Mimacharat HaPesach in parshat emor means Mimacharat HaPesach in Joshua chapter five. That is the clearest proof that Mimacharat HaPesach means Mimacharat HaPesach.
But now you can see something very interesting. According to the Perushim, we celebrate not the beginning of the manna, but the cessation of the manna. Are you with me? That was the day the manna stopped. That was the day they started eating the produce of Eretz Yisrael.
Now, please explain to me the difference between manna and the food that is the produce of Eretz Yisrael. Are they the same thing? What are the differences?
Student: One is produced by a Power, one is produced by Man.
Yes, the manna comes from Hashem without our having to do anything except collect it, but one we have to work for. Let’s look at the differences. Number one, the manna came from the midbar, the wilderness, whereas the new grain that they ate in the days of Joshua comes from Eretz Yisrael. Number two, the manna was miraculous, but the grain from Eretz Yisrael was not miraculous. Number three, the manna is the gift of God, whereas the new grain involves some human effort. Number four, the manna is described in the Torah as lechem min haShamayim, whereas bread from Eretz Yisrael is hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. Manna comes from heaven. Ordinary grain comes from the earth. And the manna, according to Rabbi Akiva, is lechem shemalchei hashareit ochlim oto (Yoma 75b), manna is the food that even angels eat.
What was the omer? It was se’orim, It was barley. And barley is… Actually animals eat it. It was not regarded as… Now, of course, barley, we’re all into health food, and it’s all wholemeal stuff and it’s great. But in those days, chittim, the wheat, was human food and barley was mainly animal food. So manna is eaten by angels, but se’orim, barley, is just… it’s not that great. But it came from Eretz Yisrael.
Now you see those five differences. Now, I believe that everyone agreed that Sefirat HaOmer is about celebrating the bread of freedom as opposed to the bread of affliction. But we now see an enormous disagreement between these two groups as to what freedom actually is. Is freedom your being in the wilderness and bread comes to you from heaven by a miracle? Is that freedom? Or is freedom crossing the Jordan, entering the land, conquering the land, and then planting and ploughing and sowing and reaping and baking? Is that freedom? And you can see these two completely different shittot. Freedom means Hashem provides all our needs. That’s one kind of freedom. And another kind of freedom says, no, to have your own land, even if it means you have to work the ground and you have to till the fields and plant the seed and wait for it to ripen and then reap it and then winnow and thresh it and then turn it into flour, but I made it myself.
Hashem gave us the land and we added the work. Hashem gave us the rain, but we did the planting. We were shutafin in Ma’aseh Bereishit. We were God’s partners in making something new happen. And that is the big difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were economically the elite of Israel’s society. They were involved in the royal court. Many of them indeed originally were priests in the temple. They were land owners rather than land workers. And for them, life is great if somebody else does the hard work. That’s freedom. So for them, freedom was the manna in the wilderness because we didn’t have to do any work at all. Hashem gave it, and all we had to do was pick it up. But the Perushim where people who had to work for a living. They were amcha and they knew that freedom means being willing to work for it. Freedom means building a society, creating farms, ploughing the land. And that brings us close to Hashem, because it is what Hashem does for us and what we do for him. That is freedom. And in fact, the Jewish mystics, the Zohar, actually calls manna by an extraordinary phrase. It calls it nahama d’kisufa, the bread of shame. Why? Because you didn’t work for it. God gave it to you, but you didn’t do anything to earn it. That is the bread of shame. If you’ve done something to earn it, that is the bread of freedom.
So we see here now, a profound difference of shittot between two schools of Jewish thought. Freedom means, let God do it all or freedom means, no, we do it all for God. He gave us the land, but we work it. He gave us the rain, but we did the planting and out of that comes… Oh, excellent. Whose is this phone? Thank you for being such a good timer. Well done. What do I do with this? I love it. I don’t mind rapping a bit.
So there you are. Guys, that is an argument that existed then and it exists to this day. Does freedom mean letting somebody else do the work? Or does freedom mean going out there and really working hard? Because nitaveh Hakadosh Baruch Hu dira b’tachtonim (Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16:1). That’s what God wants us to do. He doesn’t want us to stay in the wilderness, having water from the rock, bread from heaven and everything supplied by miracle. He wants us to enter the real world and show the world that we can work and still believe in Hakadosh Baruch Hu, that we can be in this world, which is very gashmi, and in the same time, still ruchni.
And for the perushim, that was the bread of freedom. It wasn’t when the manna began that we celebrate, it’s when the manna ended and for the first time an enslaved people, having spent 40 years in the midbar, because they didn’t have Google Maps. They didn’t have Waze in those days. So until they had Waze, obviously you’re going to get lost in the midbar. But it is when you finally get to the Holy Land and there you become Hashem’s partner, that is freedom.
So friends, I hope if I’m not mistaken that there’s something very deep in this ancient controversy. Something very deep indeed and it’s relevant to us today. Hashem wants us to have moadim v’mikraei kodesh, holy times, when we don’t do work. When there’s a Shabbat or a Shabbat Shabbaton, because we have to spend time close to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, That’s what your gap year or however long you’re spending, a little less, a little more, those are important times when God is so close that you feel him like a next door neighbour. That’s the word Shechinah and the word shachein, a neighbour. They’re the same word.
You’re sitting here in Yerushalayim, Hashem is right there. You can feel him right there, he’s close. But then God wants us to go out into the real world and show that yes, we can cure hunger. We can cure disease. We can address poverty. We can fight injustice. We can get engaged in this world and by our engagement, turn this physical world into a dira l’Hakadosh Baruch Hu, into a place where the Divine Presence rests, and that is what we called on to do. Friends, I know, you know, you read the papers, you watch the news and it’s all bad. Gevalt, this is the oy vey theory of Jewish history.
The world hates us, they criticise us, BDS all around university campuses, et cetera, et cetera. It’s terrible. Okay, it’s terrible. But I want you to think, we’ve been around a long time. My Chinese friend may have exaggerated when he said 6,000 years, but we’ve certainly been around for 4,000 years, twice as old as Christianity, three times as old as Islam. Let me ask you a question. We have known every circumstance in history, from the triumphs to the tragedies. We have been here and we’ve been scattered to every country on the face of the earth. In those 4,000 years, was there ever a time before now when we simultaneously had sovereignty and independence in the state of Israel and freedom and equality in the diaspora? There were brief periods when we had one, but not the other. Many periods when we had neither, but never before our day, do we have both at the same time. Medinat Yisrael and freedom and equality in chutz la’aretz.
Now is the time for us to put the tears aside, less oy, more joy. Put the tears aside and go out there into the world whether here in Medinat Yisrael or in chutz la’aretz, if you’re going back to university. Go back into the world and take the Shechinah with you. To be free does not mean sitting in the wilderness with Hashem providing your every need. To be free means going out there and showing people that yiddishkeit makes a difference. It makes a difference to yidden, it makes a difference to non-Jews as well. Go out there and show that we are the people who 36 times were commanded to love the stranger. We are the people who go around curing the bad things of this world. We are the people who believe in peace. We are the people who believe that to be free, you have to let go of hate.
As the rest of the world fastens its seatbelts, because the pilot has just told us that in the 21st century there is going to be turbulence ahead, let us go out there and show people that religion can be a force for good and for blessing. Not, God forbid, for violence and destruction, which it is in so many parts of the world, so tragically. Let’s go out there and become Hashem’s partners in the work of creation. Let us show that freedom is not waiting for Hashem to do it all, but for our going out there and being Hashem’s partners and bringing His Shechinah, the light of that glory to the dark places of this earth.
That is what the bread of freedom is all about. May Hashem give us all the opportunity to eat it, to make it, to share it with others. And may that be mikerev hage’ulah, to bring forward the day in which finally peace reigns on earth and the Mashiach comes. I’m sure the Mashiach is already learning in Aish Hatorah, but when the moment comes, I think he’ll know which is the right moment.
And let us go and bring that day as close as we possibly can. Bimheira b’yameinu. Amen.