The matzahs are eaten, the chametz is back. Pesach is now “back on the shelf” until next year. Our current focus is the Pesach sequel: Sefirat Haomer. It’s a time of counting up to the giving of the Torah on Shavuos and it’s a time of mourning as well. No haircuts, no shaving, no music, no weddings. How do we connect these two very different themes so it all makes sense?
The first glimpse of an answer comes at the end of Pesach, with the Kriyat Yam Suf—the Splitting of the Red Sea. Chazal tell us that this event was even more spectacular than the 10 plagues. It was a moment of true, sublime prophecy and connection with our Creator.
When the Bnei Yisrael were at the Yam Suf, they said “Zeh Keili v’anveihu” (Beshalach 15:2), “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” Here are just a few ways we can understand “V’anveihu.” Rashi says it means “I will speak of Hashem’s beauty and praise.” Targum Onkelos says it means “I will build a Beit Hamikdash for Hashem.” The Gemara in Shabbos 133 defines it as “I will beautify myself in front of Hashem by performing mitzvot in a most beautiful way.” The Gemara Shabbos 133 further says it’s a hybrid of two words “Ani” and “V’hu”—I and He. I will act like Hashem—just like Hashem is compassionate, kind and benevolent, so too I will act. Rav Gedalia Schorr, zt”l, explains these are four different paths to accomplish one common goal.
The Bnei Yisrael experienced an amazing prophecy at the Yam Suf. To keep it forever, they responded “V’anveihu”—I will refine my speech, thoughts and actions. In what way? My speech is refined by praising Hashem; my thoughts by becoming compassionate, patient and tolerant; and my actions by performing mitzvot in the most beautiful fashion possible. By doing all these things the Jews were creating a place for the Shechina to rest—the foundation of the Beit Hamikdash.
According to Rav Wolbe, zt”l, once we connected to the Creator of the universe we were changed dramatically. Our standard of conduct received a huge positive boost.
Those changes happened back then. What is likely to happen when we resolve to change today? Typically, in contemplating teshuva, the first areas we think of changing are those bein adam laMakom (between oneself and Hashem). Maybe we’ll say brachot with more concentration; perhaps, we’ll come on time to shul, learn more and be more diligent. The big question here is: why don’t we also think of improving ourselves in areas bein adam l’chavero (between oneself and one’s fellow man)?
Rav Wolbe, zt”l, explains that our ego often gets in the way. When we daven or learn better, we feel we are holier. Such is not the case when we are considering helping others—especially if we think there is no one watching. Our egos tell us that by giving to others, we are giving up something of ourselves. At the Splitting of the Sea, on the other hand, we accepted upon ourselves not just improvement in our relationship between man and God, but also improvement between man and man; improving the way we treat and relate to others. We resolved to work on our compassion, kindness, patience and tolerance.
This might be a new understanding of the puzzling Gemara that says the reason why the students of Rabbi Akiva died was because they did not accord honor to each other, resulting in the Omer period as a time of mourning. A little harsh, don’t you think?? After all, the Torah does not say that failing to honor one another is deserving of death. The answer is that the students of Rabbi Akiva were the crème de la crème! They were to be the successors of the transmission of the Torah. However, when they failed to honor each other, with their egos getting in the way, that made them unworthy of the holy task they were assigned, causing them to pay the ultimate price.
We have just experienced a tremendous closeness to Hashem, starting with Seder night and growing throughout Pesach. This has helped us reach a new and lofty level—a benchmark for the start of Sefirat Haomer. Certainly, we need to work on our relationship between us and Hashem by improving our davening and learning. But we must focus as well (and perhaps even more) on bein adam l’chavero. Our ego may be whispering to us to look the other way, but focusing on helping our neighbors, families, friends, chavrutot, etc. will result in conquering our egos and venturing forward toward true growth and closeness to Hashem.
By Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim