The Jews have been taken out of Egypt. Finally, they are free of their Egyptian masters. Hashem has made the Jewish people His people.
The Jews have been taken out of Egypt. Finally, they are free of their Egyptian masters. Hashem has made the Jewish people His people. The Midrash states that while in Egypt, the Jews had sunk to the 49th level of tumah (spiritual impurity). Had they remained in the land of Egypt for even a moment longer, they would have fallen to the 50th level from which there is no hope of rescue.
Fortunately, Hashem saved the Jews from their depraved state in one instant. Hashem sealed his contract with the Jewish people by presenting them with the most precious gift He could bestow on the human race - His Torah. Now that the Jewish people had left Egypt and had been taken under Hashem's wing, they were ready to receive the Torah.
Or were they? As we know, the giving of the Torah took place on the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan, exactly 50 days after the Jews became a free people. If the Jews were in fact truly ready for the Torah, why was there such a long wait? Why were they not offered the Torah immediately? Maybe the Jews were not quite ready after all. Why not, though? After all, they had been transported by Hashem out of their depraved state - what more was left to be accomplished?
We all love to receive gifts. Everyone looks forward to their birthday in anticipation of accumulating many presents. However, King Solomon, in his great wisdom, declared, "He who despises gifts shall live" (Proverbs 15:27). Why the antagonism toward gifts? What is so harmful? There are many reasons, but we will focus on one aspect. The sages of the Talmud note a striking psychological reality: A person prefers to have a measure of produce that he himself grew rather than nine measures another person gave to him.
When a person receives a gift, he attaches little value to that object. It does not mean that much to him. However, when a person works toward that same object, and earns it justly, he feels a much greater attachment to that item, for it came from the fruits of his own labor. Only when a person earns his reward does he feel that it is his; that it is part of him. A gift remains external to a person, he does not truly believe that it belongs to him. A gift is in some sense fleeting, while an earned reward is real and remains with a person permanently. The exodus from Egypt was a gift. Although certainly the Jews must have had some merit or they would not have been saved at all from the Egyptian people, they were clearly not deserving of being elevated from the depths of such spiritual impurity in one instant. Hashem gave it to them as a gift. Hashem deemed it necessary in order to form them into His nation, but the reward was almost entirely unearned.
The revelation and inspiration of the exodus was handed to them on a silver platter. As such, they were indeed not prepared to receive the holy Torah. They could not yet be truly called Hashem's nation. The holiness and sensation of being Hashem's chosen people was not a real and genuine element of their essence - for they had not earned it. Before they could receive the Torah, they would have to reach that level of holiness on their own, through their own efforts.
For this purpose, Hashem gave the Jewish people the period known as the Sefirat HaOmer, lasting the 49 days between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. The Jewish people were given an opportunity to use that initial spark of inspiration of the exodus to propel themselves to reach that level of holiness on their own. During each of the 49 days, the Jews, through their own effort and labor, could elevate themselves until finally on the day of Shavuot they would be totally prepared to receive the Torah. The lessons and messages of Passover would now be permanently etched on their hearts and souls, for they had worked toward them on their own. The exodus was no longer an ephemeral gift, but a lasting reward that was now part of their very essence.
Each year, we also receive a flash of tremendous inspiration and insight on the festival of Passover. Hashem assures us that He will protect us from every and all dangers which might arise as it is a leil shimurim - a night of guardianship. We are raised to unbelievable spiritual heights, but it is a gift. The sensation cannot last indefinitely. The feeling will slowly fade from our spirit, as it is not truly part of us. Rather it was handed to us on a silver platter. Our challenge is to utilize that gift as a springboard to attain that level of holiness on our own; to internalize the lessons of Passover through our own efforts.
The Sefirat HaOmer is the time to work toward achieving the spiritual heights of Passover on our own. Each day we are concentrating on another facet of our character until, finally, on the festival of Shavuot we are truly prepared to receive the Torah anew, for now we have earned our place. On Passover night, we are passive recipients of Hashem's protection, we are absolutely guaranteed of His shelter. On Shavuot, however, we take back the night on our own, staying up all night immersed in Torah study, protecting ourselves through our own actions. We have attained the spiritual heights of Passover, but with a big difference - the sensation and inspiration is through our own action, it is ours, it is part of us for an eternity. Now, we can receive the Torah, for we have truly earned it.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is a member of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College Kollel in Baltimore.
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