This page presents insights by Rabbi Tuvia Bolton on the weekly Torah portion.
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Parshat Emor (5771)
This week’s Torah portion contains 63 commandments and perhaps the strangest of them is “Counting the Omer”.
The ‘Omer’ was a bundle of barley harvested and brought to the Temple the day after Passover. That’s one commandment. Counting the Omer is still done today; namely counting Seven WEEKS day by day, and making a blessing each day on this commandment of counting the day, FROM when this ‘Omer’ was brought (the night after Passover) until the holiday of Shavuot (Feast of Weeks).
But at first glance this is not so clear. First: Why is it called Counting the Omer when in fact we are “Counting FROM the Omer”?
Second: Why do we make a blessing EACH day we count? Blessings on Commandments are only made when doing a COMPLETE commandment, but here each night is only 1/49 of the commandment.
Third, and most important: Today there is no Temple and no Omer so what does this mean to us now?
To understand this here is a personal story just sent to me by Binyamin Tanny, a young man who loves to travel the world, about his eventful trip within Guatemala.
“After an eight hour journey I got off the bus. I was one of the first ones on and last ones off but I wasn’t in a hurry. I was sitting in the back enjoying every minute of it.
But when it came time to get my duffle bag the boy who took out the suitcases offered me my US army khaki duffle bag but as soon as I saw it I realized it was a mistake. It looked like mine but it was missing my name written in small letters along the side. He looked around at the other passengers’ bags and finally worked out what had happened.
A woman had gotten on the same bus with me in Guatemala City with an identical US army bag and must have gotten off the bus and taken my bag by mistake at the previous stop. Things like this do not shock me. I tend to be more amused by G-d’s sense of humor than bothered by tragedies of nature. I have been traveling around the world for years and never met anyone with the same bag as me, but now in Guatemala of all places?
The boy and I jumped into a cab and rushed back to the previous bus stop. We checked all over but could not find any trace of the women or my bag.
“Maybe she take van from here and go to another place?” the boy suggested pointing to the vans that serviced various parts of the country
It was Friday afternoon. I was hoping to catch a bus to one of the national parks and camp out there for the Shabbat. But now my plans were ruined. I had to find my bag! I figured maybe she would return and waited a few hours but by late afternoon there was still no sign of her. I had no choice but to find a guest house. I walked through the local market scanning the area for a sign that offered accommodation. The market was a colorful affair full of locals selling fruits and other things but my mind was focused on a backpacker’s worst nightmare: ‘The disappearance of a backpack.’
My backpack was home, containing many items necessary to survive: clothes, a toothbrush, and juggling balls. It also had things like cables to recharge my camera and my MP3 player, medication for emergencies like malaria, contact lenses and other small things that are impossible to replace in a third world country village.
But the most valuable items in the pack were my tefillin (Phylacteries) and siddur (prayer book)! I usually never put the tefillin in my backpack. I always to carry them with me in a small bag along with things like my camera and other valuables people might want to steal. The one day I put my tefillin in the backpack is the one day that a women in Guatemala gets on the same bus as me, with the same bag, and then gets off with my bag! I kept telling myself it was definitely a Supernal Joke but the humor of it was beginning to wear off.
I bought some bananas, avocados, and some candles to light for Shabbat and after walking around a bit, I found the sought after guest house.
“You’ve only got a small bag with you?” The guy running the guest house asked in a heavy American accent. “Is this all you travel with?”
“Today it is, because some women has my stuff. In exchange she left behind a bag of old clothes that I left at the bus stop.”
“By the way my name is Tom,”
“Ben,” I said, and we shook hands.
“I’ve lived in Guatemala for seven years,” said Tom, “If you have one electronic item in your bag forget about it. It is not coming back. The contents of your bag are worth more than the women can make in a few years!”
Tom smiled when I mentioned that I also had $100 US in cash hidden in the pack. I kept it there for an emergency.
“She’s struck gold!” Tom continued, “You will never see your bag again! That is for sure! Don’t even think about it! I know the people here. It is lost forever. But I know something that will cheer you up. My dad and I make the best banana pancakes in Guatemala and tomorrow I’ll make you one for breakfast. Then we can go out and I’ll show you where to find some new clothes and a new backpack. Maybe you’ll even find your original pack and clothes for sale!”
I did not bother to explain to Tom that I would not eat a pancake cooked on Shabbat or go clothes shopping on that day either. His certainty really shook me. I just thanked him, went to my room, washed up, lit a candle for the first night of Chanukah then the candles of Shabbat candles all with the appropriate blessings and then tried to pray (daven) what I could from memory. I sung a few Shabbos songs ate some of my bananas and avocados and looked out the window at the view.
Having nothing was incredible. I tried to embrace the experience and savor the feeling. It was something I could not put fully into words. It brought me to some sort of place where I could sense my true self and feel some of the divine inside of me.
There was a knock on my door. It was Tom. He heard the singing and was curious. Then when he saw the Shabbat and Chanukah candles it really opened him up. We spoke about Jewish stuff. I don’t know how much he understood of what I said but when I told him about the tefillin that cost $1200 and that this was the most valuable item in the backpack he suddenly smiled, got serious and said with total certainty:
“Ahhh! If you have this special spiritual item in the pack, G-d will get you your bag back.”
“From your mouth to G-d’s ears,” I replied.
I gazed intently at the burning candles. The lost tefillin came to mind. They were a special pair; a gift from G-d.
At my bar mitzvah I received a very large and heavy pair of Chabad style tefillin. Since then I became active with outdoor adventure; running trails, climbing mountains, and bicycling long distances and carrying those large and heavy Tefillin with me in the outdoors was annoying especially if I were doing a 24 hour adventure race. So one day about three years ago I started thinking seriously that on the next adventure trip I might not take my tefillin. True, Jews are supposed to put them on every weekday and I never missed a day but I figured …. one day wouldn’t be so bad.
The following morning my mother called and said, “Guess what! You won a raffle.”
This did not surprise me because I seem blessed at wining raffles. For some reason I like to participate but I always win useless things like a dinner for two at a non-kosher restaurant or a pet rabbit.
My mom continued, “Remember two months ago you gave me money to put in a Chinese auction? Well I put in for the stuff you wanted but there was some left-over money so I put in for tefillin. You won! Tefillin of your choice valued at up to $1,200!”
I emailed the scribe in Israel who was responsible for organizing the prize and ordered the smallest and most carefully made tefillin that you can make with every chumra (stringency) possible for $1,200. These are the Tefillin I just lost.
“I will miss these tefillin,” I said to myself as I gazed at the candles. “They were special to me, but I guess HaShem (G-d) can do what He wants. Just like He gave them to me in the most unusual way, I guess he just took them back in an unusual way.” Suddenly I wanted to pray.
I was brought up religious and have been praying from the book three times a day all my life but I have to say that this was one of the few times in my life that I really prayed. I truly felt that I was talking to G-d and He was listening.
“HaShem you can keep the backpack, all the cables and the rechargers, malaria medication and contact lenses. You can keep the $100, and even my five favorite juggling balls, but since my Bar Mitzvah I have not missed a day of putting on tefillin. Listen G-d, when Sunday morning comes, if you want me to put on tefillin, you better get me a pair, because it is up to You. Even if I try to get to Guatemala City where I might be able to find tefillin, the chances of me getting there by sunset on Sunday are not high. It’s a long trip away. I don’t know if there’s a bus on Sunday, or a seat, and You need to arrange that there will be no landslides that block the roads, bus breakdowns, riots, wars, or rebel activity. So between You and me, it is probably easier for You, Hashem, to organize my tefillin to come back to me, than to organize a miracle where a bus will not break down in a third world country!”
It was the first time in my life I davened (prayed) with complete sincerity. There was no other option.
Shabbat morning I said what Sabbath Morning prayers that I remembered by heart in my room and then walked to the bus station. There was still no word or sign of my bag. The man working there tried to comfort me, “This is Guatemala, no bag ever come back so have this bag of women’s clothing,” He said, pointing to the duffle bag that had been left for mine. I just turned around and went back to the hotel.
I found Tom and asked him if he could help me with a police report. His Spanish was better than mine.
“I don’t get it,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve got these tefillin things, so G-d has to get them back to you Himself, you don’t need the police.”
I shrugged my shoulders. Tom continued, “We’re going back to the bus station.”
Twenty minutes later when we entered the station the man working there had a big smile on his face! From behind the counter he produced …… my bag! Fully intact.
He explained, “This is first time I see this in Guatemala! Yesterday the one with your bag she travel five hours home and see she have wrong bag. So today she travel back here five hours and hope she find her bag still here! Oh Ho! Was she happy! Singing and clapping saying it was a miracle! And here is your bag! Right? She bring yours back! Ahhh! A double miracle!!”
I was happy and tried to explain that I could not carry the bag back because it was Shabbat. “It will be an honor to carry this bag,” said Tom. He lifted it over his shoulder and we walked back to the guest house.
“Do you still want that banana pancake?” Tom asked me when we arrived.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I smiled. http://travelingrabbi.com/2007/12/20/lost-tefillin-in-guatemala/
Maybe this will help answer our questions.
The goal of life is ‘Tshuva’; return. Namely to return to our true selves and return the world to the paradise it was when it was created.
True, this is very lofty but each of us can do it in a small way by finding a goal that relates to us. Something like how the star of our story tried to return his lost backpack in order to put on his Tefillin.
But no matter how lofty or simple our goal, we cannot attain it without perseverance and joy.
And these can only be acquired by realizing that every step in achieving our goal, even if it contains setbacks, is essential and important. Indeed, sometimes the lessons learned ‘on the way’ are as important as (or even more important than) the goal itself!
This is the meaning of the OMER. The Omer was made of barley which is considered ‘Animal Food’; according to Kabalah representing the selfish ‘animal’ nature inherent in every human.
Offering this Omer on the altar means trying to use this ‘animal nature’ to ‘come close’ to the Creator. (The word Offering and Coming close – Korvan is similar) and after 49 days of counting comes the holiday of Shavuot when the Torah was received.
Just as the Jews when they left Egypt; began using their ‘lower’ natures with the goal of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
But on the way they had to ‘Count’ this “Omer” namely to gradually refine this animal soul with each day being another spiritual accomplishment and another blessing.
That is the lesson to be learned today from sacrificing and counting the ‘Omer’; just as the Jews were headed toward receiving the Torah we too must have a goal. But we must refine ourselves constantly on the way.
For instance; not being angry, lazy, lustful, depressed, selfish, cruel, negative etc are necessary qualifications for achieving any goal… but to be rid of these traits and to replace them with joy, enthusiasm, caring, kindness, optimism is a great treasure’; Perhaps even greater than the goal being sought.
Something like how in our story the young man, on his way to getting his bag back, learned to rely on G-d from his friend Tom and to pray to G-d on his own.
And just as he finally and miraculously received all this so too will we merit to receiving more than just restoring the world to the original paradise it was.
Because of the terrible suffering and disappointments we have suffered ‘on the way’ for these last 2,000 years we will merit to revelations even greater than those that Adam experienced in paradise. That will be the job of Moshiach; to awaken everything latent in every human and to reveal all the hidden good of the Creator.
But now it is in our hands; even one more good deed, word or even thought can bring…..
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