Right now we are celebrating the holiday of freedom, Passover (Pesach). But what are we celebrating freedom from? It is freedom from and freedom to do something else. It is freedom from slavery as well as freedom to become the Jewish People.
Pesach is an opportunity to free ourselves. Originally it was the time where G-d freed us from Egyptian slavery, which included both physical and spiritual bondage. At a time in history where we as people and as Jews are physically a free people, how are we supposed to understand the idea written in the Haggadah (the book read at the Passover Seder) that we too are supposed to see ourselves as having left Egypt?
It is difficult to put ourselves in a mindset that understands that we are enslaved. We do not have to be physically enslaved to try to wrap our heads around the concept. We are slaves to our desires. Our desires might be the need to be liked by others. It may include the need to buy more material things to make us happy. These are things that restrict us from doing what is necessary to do in our lives, to allow ourselves to grow as Jews.
We may decide that we would like to attempt a mitzvah that we have not tried before, but because it may look strange to other people, we decide not to bother. This may include keeping kosher, lighting Shabbat candles, or not going out on a Friday night. It all comes down to the limitations (not even physical ones) that we place on ourselves, and the limitations we allow others to place on us. We are afraid of what others will think of us. This is slavery.
We must remember that the goal of the Exodus from Egypt was that G-d was redeeming us to be His People. This was not just a group of slaves “escaping” from Egypt. This was an incredibly special event, an event which defines the Jewish People. This is the beginning of the beginning of Jewish history.
“The Haggadah quotes two verses describing the redemption; one in the singular, one in the plural. There are two aspects of redemption: the redemption of the Jewish People as a whole; and the particular redemption of each individual.
Both elements are essential. Each person must experience a personal exodus from his boundaries and limitations. However, beyond this individual experience, he must await the ultimate redemption of the entire people. Indeed, it is our faith in that redemption that grants each of us the potential to leave our individual exiles” -- Rabbi Yehudah Arieh Leib of Gur
[taken from the The Chassidic Haggadah]
Unfortunately, most afternoon Hebrew schools end without having the time to talk about Sefirat HaOmer or Shavuot. Sefirat HaOmer is the 49 day period where we are counting the days until Shavuot, the time when we received the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai on the 50th day. The day that the 12 Tribes that made up the Jews, became the Jewish People, G-d’s representatives on Earth.
This period of time, Sefirat HaOmer, is a time of personal growth. This is the time where we can make the most impact on our personal characters. The Jews leaving Egypt were at a very low spiritual level and were redeemed based on the merits of the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rivka (Rebecca), Rachel and Leah, and in the merit of the Jewish women of Egypt. G-d needed to give these newly freed slaves time to become free in their minds and to work to bring themselves to a high enough spiritual level to receive the Torah.
The same way we must see ourselves as leaving Egypt, we also need to see ourselves as receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. We need to create ourselves anew as individual Jews and as a nation.
Sefirat HaOmer is an opportunity for no matter what we have been doing all year spiritually, we have a period in time to rededicate ourselves to G-d, the Torah and to our mission as Jews. In general, over the course of the year we are striving to make ourselves better people, however it is easy to get discouraged and annoyed for not making progress. Sefirat HaOmer is a limited time where we can make a concerted effort to break new ground.
Shavuot, the holiday celebrating G-d giving us the Torah, is the culmination of this work. This is the day we have been waiting for. We too were standing at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah (albeit in spiritual form) becoming the Jewish Nation. Shavuot is again the day we will stand at Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah again for the first time. This is a proud moment. A moment that defines us as individuals and as a nation. Like the Torah says, we stood at the foot of the mountain like one man with one heart. Unified by becoming G-d’s people. We were no longer 12 disparate tribes, but one nation.
Some mark the night of Shavuot by staying up all night learning Torah. But no matter how you mark this day, it is the day that we began looking forward to on Pesach, seven weeks before. This is a period of growth. Let us take advantage of it and move back toward being one man with one heart.
Chazak. Be strong.
Chag Sameach. Have a good Holiday!
Next Year in Jerusalem!