From the Rabbi  (May 2017)  


This month of May, on our secular calendar, is bracketed this year by holidays on the Jewish calendar.  On May 1 is Israeli Memorial Day followed immediately by Israel’s Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut) on Monday evening the 1stand Tuesday the 2nd. The month ends with the biblical festival of Shavuot on the evening of May 30 right after our American Memorial Day on May 29, and continuing on May 31 and June 1.  Lag BaOmer, the 33rdday of counting the Omer, a minor holiday, comes in the middle, this year on Mother’s Day, May 14.  Add to that many personal celebrations for graduation and we seem to have a month filled with festivities.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this month of Iyar with the exceptions of the holiday periods mentioned, is considered to be a time of quasi-mourning.  Some people do not engage in festive activities or attend theater or musical performances during this time.  There are folks who do not cut their hair or shave during these days, and with a few exceptions, we generally do not schedule weddings during the days of the Omer. These days are linked to periods of persecution that took place in ancient Israel or later in our history in the times of the Crusades.  Lag BaOmer was a time of respite from the persecution and customarily on the opening days of Sivan leading up to Shavuot, we lift the restrictions observed during this time.

For our sages, these days of Sefirah, of counting the Omer, were considered days of purification.  They tell us that the Israelites in Egyptian slavery had descended to the lowest spiritual depths.  Had they been allowed to remain in slavery any longer, they would have been totally irredeemable.   They had reached the 49thlevel of tumah, impurity, thus God had to rush to redeem them from Egypt before it was too late.  Over the succeeding 49 days, they began a process of purification, rising day by day until they were ready on the 50thday to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai.  Thus we too are urged to utilize these days of the Omer to prepare ourselves for Shavuot, to engage in spiritual pursuits day by day and gradually reach the level of preparedness for the revelation at Sinai.

Each day we are to engage in a ritual of counting, counting the days and the weeks from Passover to Shavuot.  We count up day after day: today is the fifteenth day which makes two weeks and one day of the Omer, today is the 23rd day which makes three weeks and two days of the Omer and so forth.  Some people have a practice when they are looking forward to a special event of crossing days off the calendar.  When we just can’t wait for an event to occur, we tear pages off the calendar and toss them away, counting down to our birthdays or vacation time or some other milestone.  That, however, is not the Jewish way.  For us, every day is precious, every day should bring us closer to some worthwhile achievement.  We build one day on top of another, one week on top of another.  We ascend in holiness and try not to descend.  Thus the sages urge us to utilize these days to perform mitzvot, to study Torah, to reach out to perform acts of charity and thus ascend in holiness day by day.  Some people study Talmud, choosing to learn the 49 pages of the tractate of Shevuoth (Oaths) to match the 49 days leading up to Shavuoth (the Feast of Weeks).  Others choose less onerous study assignments such as reading a chapter of the Bible each day or studying a Mishnah text daily.  Still others look for an opportunity to perform a mitzvah each day and thereby ascend in more concrete ways.  Even though we are now already well into the Sefirah period, there is no reason we cannot begin even now to rise in holiness, to prepare ourselves to stand again at Sinai and open our hearts to Torah on Shavuot.

May the month of May enter with the celebration of Israel’s 69thbirthday, “the first flowering of our redemption” and may we continue to grow, to learn, and to purify ourselves to receive the word of God on Shavuot when the month draws to a close.

Rabbi Edward Friedman