Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, zt”l once delivered a marvelous shiur regarding the great controversy between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In the 23rd chapter of Vayikra the laws of the holidays are recorded.

Following is a new section with the cryptic verse, “You shall count on the morrow after the Shabbos, (mi-mocharas ha-Shabbos) 50 days.” The phrase, “on the morrow after the Sabbath,” created a controversy between the Pharisees, chazal, who had an oral tradition of interpretation, and the Sadducees. The Sadducees maintained that to count on “the morrow after the Shabbos” meant to count literally from the day after the Shabbos following Pesach, therefore, Sunday. The Pharisees, however, ruled that the “Shabbos” meant the day of rest (the first day of Pesach), that is, to count seven weeks from the second day of Pesach.

This new section of counting seven weeks presents the mitzvah to bring the first harvest of the barley crops, and offer them in the Temple, to the the Kohein, as a sign that the farmers’ crops are due to God’s benevolence. Significantly, the 50 days of counting seems totally unrelated to the holiday of Pesach. It is a function, rather, of the beginning of the harvest season.

The Pharisees had always connected Pesach and the counting of the seven weeks leading to the holiday of Shavuot, the day of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. According to the Sadducees there is no connection between Pesach and Shavuot. The former holiday celebrates our release from slavery while the latter is an agricultural festival. According to the Pharisees, however, our release from slavery on Pesach was only the first stage of our redemption. On Pesach we were freed from physical slavery in order to receive the Torah from God on Shavuot, and receive true spiritual freedom. The rabbis changed the biblical name of Chag haShavuos, as it is written in Devorim, to Atzeret to link it to Pesach. Atzeret means addendum or concluding holiday.

We have seen the basis for the dispute between the Sadducees and chazal. But why didn’t the Torah avert this divisive controversy altogether, by designating the date of the beginning of the Omer as the “morrow” after the first day of Chag haMatzot or Mimocharat hayom ha-rishon? The date would have then been clear to everyone. Also, why did the Torah separate the barley harvest and the counting of seven weeks from Pesach by presenting them in a separate parsha? We have the distinct impression that the Torah is interested in separating the description of the barley offering from that of the general Pesach celebration. It seems that God deliberately employed the ambiguous term “Shabbos” for the second day of Pesach because the barley harvest has very little to do with the holiday, even though it is brought on the second day of the festival. There is a coincidence of dates but there is no equation of ideas. In fact, Pesach and the barley harvest represent two different ideas and two contradictory experiences or awarenesses.

The challenge we face daily is to find God in everyday experiences.

After referring to the commemoration of the Pesach sacrifice and the celebration of the holiday of matzos, the Torah begins a new literary unit. Food will no longer be provided miraculously. You will have to till the ground, to irrigate and fertilize it, and only then will you be able to reap the harvest. You must continue to experience God within his natural world or nature. To express this, you will be required to offer the very beginning of your harvest to the kohein. The kohein will then raise it before God to express your conviction that it belongs to God, that it is yours only by the virtue of God’s benevolence. The barley harvest festival will thus constitute evidence that you have found God in nature.

This is why the Torah did not say, “the day after Pesach.” Rather, the Torah used the admittedly more ambiguous “the day after the Shabbos,” to indicate that they would now be living by the laws of nature that are celebrated by our observance of the weekly Shabbos.

We are now to live in the natural world, not in a world of supernatural miracles. The holiday is therefore called Chag HaShavuot, the holiday of the natural weeks. It is for us Chag Matan Torah, the holiday of the giving of the Torah, because the purpose of the Torah is to help us live within the natural world, and to find God in that world.

By Martin Polack

Martin Polack is a business analyst. He is in love with Judaism and awaits the Geulah.

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