As a child I used to love riding on an escalator. I would race my brother from the bottom to the top of the downward escalator (yes, running in the opposite direction of the escalator). Running up stairs was part of the package of living in Washington Heights, New York. My brother and I would often race up the 130-step staircase that connected Overlook Terrace to Fort Washington Avenue.
My childhood experience came in handy when my wife and I lived in Ma’alot Dafna, a small neighborhood in Yerushalayim. The name Ma’alot Dafna refers to the ma’alot, steps, up to the dafna, laurel tree, referring to the layered hills and the stepped approach to it. The neighborhood is built on a hill and boasts many steps. Imagine that challenge with our twin 2-year-olds and a stroller.
In Parshas Emor, we have the mitzvah of Sefiras HaOmer, which covers the period of time we are currently in—between Pesach and Shavuos. The Torah instructs us to count daily, starting from the second day of Pesach, for 49 days until Shavuos. The act of counting up to Shavuos helps us prepare for Matan Torah, giving of the Torah.
Is this period of counting the Omer more comparable to an upward escalator that allows us to climb automatically, or to running upward on a downward escalator?
Most events involve a countdown, but the Sefer HaChinuch says Sefiras HaOmer is different. We count upwards to Shavuos because each day takes us another step upwards in our self-development, to be fit to receive the Torah on Shavuos. The Omer period is analogous to walking up those steep steps from Overlook Terrace to Fort Washington Avenue.
The pasuk instructs us to count the days of the Omer, saying, “Usfartem lachem, You should count for yourselves.” The midrash says the luchos, tablets, were fashioned from sapphire stone. The Ohr HaChaim says the word sefirah relates to sapphire (sappir in Hebrew). The lesson here is that “Usfartem lachem” directs us to utilize these days of Sefirah to “polish our souls” so that we can shine like sapphire.
The Chasam Sofer says if we analyze this period of Sefiras HaOmer, there are three “trimesters” of sixteen days each, ending in Shavuos. Each trimester corresponds to an area of our conduct that we need to focus on to refine ourselves, as listed in the Mishnah in Avos, “On three things the world stands: Torah, avodah and gemilus chasadim.”
Logically, I would have assumed that the last trimester should focus on Torah, as it immediately precedes Shavuos—the day we receive the Torah. However, the Chasam Sofer says the focus on Torah is actually in the first trimester! The second trimester is avodah, and the third trimester is gemilus chasadim, just like the order listed in the Mishnah.
I believe the explanation for this order of priority is as follows: My rebbe, Rav Asher Arieli, said that when Noach was in the teiva, ark, he was busy 24/7 feeding and tending to the animals inside. Why such devotion and hard work? Because the pasuk says, “Olam chesed yibaneh, Hashem created the world with chesed, kindness. Noach was helping a new world start; therefore, it was done through chesed, by devotedly feeding the animals in the teiva 24/7.
The phrase “olam chesed yibaneh” refers to the future. Why? Because as we approach Shavuos every year, we are anticipating receiving the Torah, for which the world was created. Every Shavuos therefore represents the re-creation of the world, which can only be done through chesed—focusing on harmony and caring for one another. In this way, we are polishing ourselves by refining our character so we can shine like sapphire. Doing chesed will thus help us merit receiving the Torah this Shavuos.
Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim is the associate rosh yeshiva of Passaic Torah Institute (PTI)/Yeshiva Ner Boruch, where he leads a multi-level Gemara learning program. PTI has attracted adult Jews of all ages from all over northern New Jersey for its learning programs. Fees are not charged, but contributions are always welcome. Rabbi Bodenheim can be reached at [email protected]. For more info about PTI and its Torah classes, visit www.pti.shulcloud.com.