Thursday, May 3, 2012

Building Jewish Unity Throughout the Year

We're counting the Omer - counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot (the 50th day), the day we celebrate the receiving of the Torah, the guidebook to our lives.

People often wonder about this counting - shouldn't we be counting down the days rather than counting day 1... day 2... day 3? If you're looking forward to something you generally find yourself doing just that - counting down, versus counting up.

But I think that this counting is part of something larger - something we started earlier in the year at the holiday of Purim. The holiday of Purim has four big commandments associated with it - the giving of charity to the poor, giving gifts of food to our friends, reading the megillah (generally done in a group setting), and a festive feast to celebrate the holiday. All these mitzvot create the underlying theme of building community unity.

The next holiday we celebrate is Pesach/Passover. Part of the Pesach experience is the seder - the gathering where we get together to discuss the exodus from Egypt - and to celebrate our transition from slavery to freedom. Toward the beginning of the seder we declare - "All who are hungry come and eat! All who are needy come and conduct the Pesach seder." We want every Jew to be a participant in the seder - no matter our societal position nowadays, we were all slaves to the Pharoah in Egypt - we all were poor and hungry. We can see that Pesach is also another brick in building Jewish unity.

We begin counting toward Shavuot (Pentacost), when we received the Torah, on the 2nd night of Pesach.  While on Pesach we celebrate our freedom - we also keep in mind that pure freedom without rules leads only to anarchy and destruction. Shavuot and the receiving of the Torah - those life rules - really bind us as a Nation. While previously we were the family of Jacob - with the Torah, we became the Nation of Israel, with an unbreakable covenant with G-d.

Rashi, a well-known commentator on the Torah, makes an observation on the verse describing the time before the Children of Israel were about the receive the Torah - "Israel camped there, opposite the mountain" (Exodus 19:2). Rashi says, "like one man with one heart". Certainly a moment in history that has not been easy to duplicate.

But it is that moment - when the Jewish People were truly united - that we work toward during this time. All the mitzvot that we find from Purim through Shavuot are meant to help us toward that goal of Jewish unity. The counting toward the receiving of the Torah should be an indicator of going from 'strength to strength', rather than counting down a finite number of days, we are hopefully becoming stronger in our connection to one another - something that certainly shouldn't be finite.

The Torah was given to us as a People, a Nation, not to a bunch of individuals. And as a Nation, we must see every Jew as part of ourselves. As we approach this special spiritual moment in history - Shavuot - we should take the time to recommit ourselves to our Torah and to building our connection with each other. It's time to receive the Torah "like one man with one heart" once again.

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