Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Meaning Sefirat Ha'omer
To dedicate this lesson

History Intervenes


Rabbi Berel Wein

There is a well known truism in human experience that all plans that are carefully drawn up are perfect until life itself intervenes. The same may be said of many other facets of Jewish life. We are currently in the midst of the days of sefirat haomer- the counting of the days between Pesach and Shavuot. In its original format this was a time of joyful anticipation. On Shavuot the Jewish people were to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai and therefore the anticipation of that world changing event was one of joy and happiness. It is in the nature of all human beings to look forward to great events with happy thoughts and a feeling of well being. And in addition counting the days of the omer is a mitzvah - a positive Torah commandment - and we are all aware that we are instructed to fulfill the positive commandments of the Torah with happiness and enthusiasm. So in a perfectly planned world this period of time between Pesach and Shavuot should be one of the most joyous and satisfying times of the year. But as we are all aware the reality of the mood of this period of time is exactly the opposite of joy and satisfaction. It is currently a period of time when weddings are not solemnized, beards and haircuts remain untrimmed, music and entertainment are limited and a general mood of sobriety if not sadness pervades our society. In short, with the exception of the period leading up to Tisha B’Av, this period of sefirat haomer is the saddest time of the Jewish calendar year.

And the reason for this paradoxical situation is that history has intervened and altered our perception of these weeks. In a perfect world the Jewish people would never have suffered exile with all of its tragic traumas and murderous events. But in the real world terrible events have taken place during this period of time. Rabbi Akiva’s entire society of twenty-four thousand scholarly disciples died during this period of time. The rebellion of Bar Kochba against Roman tyranny failed during this period of time with enormous loss of Jewish lives. The ancient tri-city Jewish community of Speyers, Worms and Mainz in the Rhineland was destroyed by the Christian crusaders in 1096 during this Pesach to Shavuot weeks. Much of the atrocities committed against the Jewish communities in the Cossack/Ukrainian war against the authorities in 1648-9 also occurred mainly in the springtime, the period between Pesach and Shavuot. The Israeli War of Independence which cost over six thousand Jewish lives also began and much of it took place during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. In short, this period of time has over the past years of Jewish exile this period of time of the annual Jewish calendar has been anything but a happy and satisfactory period of time. To mark these sad events of Jewish history the days between Pesach and Shavuot have morphed into days of sad commemoration and very limited joy and satisfaction.

It is interesting to note how Jewish values and halacha itself accommodate itself to historic relevance, events and intervention. The Torah is the book of human life and its story. Therefore whatever happens in the human story is relevant to understanding and appreciating the Torah itself. Just as life intervenes with our plans and projects so too does the history of human events intervene in all of Jewish religious life. And by allowing the events of Jewish history to be commemorated within a halachic framework, even changing the original nature and mood of the mitzvah itself involved, Judaism allows the Torah to be truly the book of humankind. The abysmal lack of knowledge of Jewish history and its events is one of the major maladies that affects all of Jewish societies today. It is one of the failings that we have that prevents us from effectively presenting our just cause to the rest of the world convincingly. If we are unable to understand how our history has intervened and affected our current world we are simply helpless before the lies and hatred of our enemies. Without knowing the entire story of our past we are unable to put the events of the past century - the Holocaust and the independence of the State of Israel - into some sort of true historical perspective. History always intervenes and influences our lives, thoughts and attitudes. Without realizing this basic fact of human life we are certainly going to find it difficult to think and act wisely in our current situation.
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