We Can't Stop Climbing the Mountain (Remarks Delivered at Boca Raton Synagogue on Shabbos Parshas Emor, the day after Lag BaOmer 2021/5781)

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Remarks Delivered at Boca Raton Synagogue on Shabbos Parshas Emor,

the day after Lag BaOmer 2021/5781

Did u see the news. We hear tons of ambulances passing. We can’t even leave. This is insane. We are all so scared.” 


On Thursday evening, I got a flurry of texts from my daughter Leora who was in Meron.  Obviously, we immediately found out what happened and were beyond grateful that Leora was not only all right, but she was able to be in touch with us.  We spoke several more times that night.  While we were sleeping, she was still processing what happened and I woke up to the following text:


“Abba, the craziest part was the switch of emotions.  I thought it was the most meaningful thing. I loved the whole night. Everyone was so different yet so dedicated to the day. I was davening so intensely and really felt that this would be a reason Mashiach would come. All Jews of all types were dancing together and there were so many people and there was inspirational music and davening. I literally davened that HaShem should look around at all of his children together, end our tzaros and bring Mashiach. I had such a powerful davening - It really felt so uplifted and then ten minutes later the stretchers were running in and this huge tzara happened.”


My daughter was struggling to make sense of it, to go from feeling Moshiach is imminent to he was never further away. She was struggling and I must admit, so am I.  While most got back on busses, forty-five people, among them children, did not.  Each a world, each a child, a sibling, maybe a husband and a father. Among them was Donny Morris, a grandson of our beloved members Rabbi Joel and Malka Morris, who was learning in Shaalvim for the year.  Donny was a sweet and gentle soul.  He was thoughtful and sensitive and especially kind to those who needed it most.  He was so happy that night.  The picture that went around with his big smile, a picture many of you have seen by now, was a picture he sent his family shortly before he left this world.  How could this be? Lag BaOmer, the night that we mark the end of collective mourning, how could an intense new mourning have begun?


וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃

“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.”


Our Parsha contains the mitzvah to count the Omer.  We count from Pesach until Shavuos but the Torah doesn’t give us dates, rather it tells us count seven weeks. And no ordinary weeks, either: seven temimos weeks, complete weeks.  Halachically, we understand “complete” to mean we cannot begin Shavuos until nightfall, otherwise the 49th day is not complete.


But the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 28:3) understands it differently:
שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה, אֵימָתַי הֵן תְּמִימוֹת בִּזְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם


Seven complete weeks – when are they considered complete? When the people of Israel are fulfilling the will of Hashem.


What does it mean the counting of sefirah is only complete when you do the ratzon of Hashem? If you completed the count, wasn’t that His ratzon? Moreover, Chazal tell us that when Hashem told Avraham, ואתה את בריתי תשמור, if you observe my covenant, He was referring to the mitzvah of the Omer.  Why is Omer called a bris, as opposed to other mitzvos?


Rav Avraham Schorr shlit”a explains that we aren’t just counting and marking days on a calendar.  There is a specific goal, an effort or exercise we are engaged in to improve in a particular area, to better keep a fundamental directive of Hashem.  The Torah (Devarim 18:13) gives us a mitzvah תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה׳ אֱלֹקיךָ. You must be wholehearted with Hashem your God. But what does it mean to be tamim with Him? 


Rashi, quoting the Sifrei, explains:

 הִתְהַלֵּךְ עִמּוֹ בִתְמִימוּת, וּתְצַפֶּה לוֹ, וְלֹא תַחֲקֹר אַחַר הָעֲתִידוֹת, אֶלָּא כָּל מַה שֶּׁיָּבֹא עָלֶיךָ קַבֵּל בִּתְמִימוּת וְאָז תִּהְיֶה עִמּוֹ וּלְחֶלְקוֹ:

Walk before him whole-heartedly, put your hope in Him and do not attempt to investigate the future, but whatever it may be that comes upon you accept it whole-heartedly, and then you shalt be with Him and become His portion.


Sefiras HaOmer is an annual 49-day challenge to surrender and submit ourselves to Hashem, to forfeit our capacity to understand, our expectation or entitlement to comprehend.  For seven weeks, one day at a time, we work hard to be tamim, to be whole, to be mevateil ourselves to Him.  Only then, when we have no preconceived notions, no demands, no expectation or entitlement, only then can we stand at the base of the mountain on Shavuos, can we accept His Torah. 


Amalek attacked us in the month of Iyar when we were on that march toward the mountain. The Torah famously describes אשר קרך בדרך, how they “happened” upon us on our journey and tried to make us people who believe everything is happenstance. They continue to attack us today by trying to get us to believe it is all chance, random and coincidence.  There is no meaning, no order, no God and nothing is by design.  Our answer, the antidote, is to count these days and use this time to be more and more tamim, to see Him more and more everywhere and responsible for everything. 


The weeks of Sefira are only fully realized as temimos when we are devoted to retzono shel makom, because the whole goal of the count is to improve on our willingness to be מבטל רצוננו מפני רצונו.  Omer is called a Bris, a covenant, because our commitment and promise is to use this count to draw closer, to think more about Him and less about us, to put His vision and interests ahead of our own, to submit to His plan whether we understand it or not.


This Sefiras HaOmer, our count, our journey towards the mountain has been painfully interrupted.  Our effort to fulfill תמים תהיה is being tested by this inexplicable and incomprehensible tragedy, the greatest non-terror catastrophe in Israel’s history.  So where do we draw our strength? 


Our father, Avraham Avinu, was told התהלך לפני והיה תמים, walk before Me and be tamim.  His commitment to fulfill this charge was put to the test when he was asked to sacrifice and give up his own son.  Even then, Avraham remained steadfast in his faith, unwavering in his convictions. He has passed that fortitude down in our DNA, he has transmitted that capacity to us, his genetic and spiritual heirs.  


Those forty-five neshamos that are no longer here went to Meron to literally and metaphorically climb the mountain, to draw closer to Hashem, to feel His presence, to answer the call ofתמים תהיה .  Their presence there that night tells us that none of them would want their tragic loss to create the question that knocks us off the mountain.  Rather, in a great test of our Sefira count towards temimus, they would want us to continue to climb, albeit after understandably stopping to catch our spiritual breath.  You may have seen the video of the enormous crowd in Meron singing “Ani Ma’amin - I believe with a complete faith in the coming of Moshiach,” just moments before the tragedy.  We sing Ani Ma’amin when we look out and it feels like Moshiach is about to come, and we continue to sing Ani Ma’amin when we look out at events that simply defy words or understanding.


Yes, when we learned that an American in Israel for the year was lost, it became more real, more relatable. When we found out he was connected to our community, it hurt that much more.  But even before then, whose heart didn’t hurt, whose eyes didn’t tear up when first hearing the news, when watching the number of casualties climb? The images contained crowds that for the most part look very different, practice differently than most of us.  The pictures of most of the casualties reflect different communities, hashkafas and lifestyles.  But that didn’t impact the pain, the concern. That didn’t diminish or lessen the hurt.  And so I beg of you this morning, that agony you felt when learning about this tragedy, that ache you felt when seeing pictures of those victims, bottle that feeling and remember it. 


You see, it too often takes these tragedies to feel the connection, to share a common heart.  In Tel Aviv and Haifa, hundreds of secular Jews turned up to give blood to their Chareidi brothers. In Yerushalayim, a blood donation station downtown turned people away - there's already enough. In Givat Shmuel, a Jew was distributing free food to families with loved ones who haven't yet made it home, and were too busy to cook for Shabbos.  A funeral took place Friday for a Jew from Montreal with no family in Israel. Hundreds came in intense heat to give final and proper honor his neshama.


Why?! Why must it take tragedy to feel together, why must it take sorrow to recognize we have one heart? Next time you are tempted to see a fellow Jew as the other, as different, you are quick to judge or criticize them, ask yourself if their image were part of a tragic picture would you not cry for their loss, would you not feel the pain of their family?


As we return to climb the mountain, let’s remember what to hold on to and what to let go off.  Let go of the questions that have no answers, but bottle the sense of unity and togetherness that is the solution to a time when Hashem will look down at his children, end our tzaros, and bring Moshiach.