Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim/ May 2, 2009

Yom Ha-Atzmaut 5769

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

Israel Independence Day and Counting the Omer*

 

Prof. Yaakov Spiegel

 

Department of Talmud

 

Our rabbis taught (Megillah 32b): “Moses instituted the practice that Israel ask questions (sho'alin) and study (dorshin) the particular character of the day:  the laws of Passover on Passover, the laws of Atzeret on Atzeret (=Feast of Weeks), and the laws of the Festival on the Festival (=Tabernacles).   Even though this text refers to studying halakhah, nevertheless it has been extended to delivering sermons (=derashot) as well.  Perhaps this was done because the word dorshin is mentioned here, even though the context clearly indicates a reference to investigating matters of halakhah.   It is a widespread practice among Jews on every holiday to devote their sermons to the subject of the holiday.   Israel Independence Day, unlike the rest of the Jewish holidays, has not enjoyed the good fortune of having many sermons devoted to it, perhaps because it is such a recent holiday, or perhaps because those who deliver sermons prefer not to relate to it, but rather to treat it as an ordinary day.  Therefore, in order to fill this gap, I have decided to present a brief sermon on Israel Independence Day. 

Sermons come in many forms, most being structured out of homiletic material together with moral messages, various insights, etc.   Others, however, are built on the edifice of halakhah and structured in a special manner.  I have chosen to present a sermon built on halakhic components, as some have done, thus incidentally affording the reader the opportunity, not so common these days, to learn about this type of sermon.

Do We Count?

Our predecessors were perplexed by a problem arising from the forceful claim of the gentiles against the Jews that since Scripture explicitly states, “Indeed, you are the smallest of peoples” (Deut. 7:7), therefore the Jews ought to become insignificant or effaced among the gentiles, and that this effacement would imply (Heaven forefend) that we ought to behave as they do.  Various responses have been made to this assertion. [1]   One of them argues that the Jews are enumerable, and there is a well-known rule of halakhah that something that can be counted, even if it is only one in a thousand, is never considered insignificant.  Therefore we find that on occasion the Holy One, blessed be He, counts the people of Israel, as Rashi wrote on Numbers 1:1:  “Because they are so fond in His eyes, He counts them every hour.”    This brings us to the meaning of the words, “because they are so fond,” for this is what gave the Jews the status of being enumerable and hence not becoming insignificant.   Here it behooves us to quote Rabbi Moses Haim ha-Cohen Schneider: [2]

“Take a census of the whole Israelite community” (Num. 1:2), is discussed in the midrash (Numbers Rabbah 1.5):   “As it was said, ‘He did not do so for any other nation; of such rules they know nothing’ (Ps. 147:20)…   The Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that we be counted continually, so that we be enumerable, and for this reason we do not become insignificant among the vast majority of gentile nations, because something that is enumerable is never considered insignificant.”   This leads us to the conclusion that because we are counted we can worship the Lord, hold fast by the stronghold of the Torah, and be a chosen people among the nations.   This could be the meaning of what we are taught in the Talmud (Bava Batra 10b), “In what way will ‘Israel’s horn be exalted (=will Israel triumph)’?” i.e., will Israel be chosen from among all the other nations?  “By ‘when you take a census,’” i.e., by the fact that they are counted and are enumerable, and hence do not become insignificant with respect to the nations of the world.  In this way their horn will be exalted. [3]

The Sands of the Sea

This could also explain the meaning of Scripture in saying, “The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted” (Hosea 2:1).  The Sages noted a difficulty (Yoma 21b) in this verse which begins with the word “number” yet concludes by saying “which cannot be measured our counted.”   In line with what we said above, however, it becomes patently clear that by being counted they become important, as if they were so multitudinous that one could not count them, and thus they do not become insignificant even in comparison to the entire world. For even if the other nations of the world are as numerous as the sand, the Jewish people will not become insignificant among them because that which is counted always counts.  Thus, by being countable, they become as if they too were like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured our counted.

This also explains the Midrash text we cited above from Rabbi Schneider's writings. “Take a census" (Num. 1:2) – count how many there are of them, and should you wonder why they were continually counted, the answer is given in the midrash that explains, “He did not do so for any other nation; of such rules they know nothing,” that is, He gave us the Torah and our faith, which is different from that of all other peoples.   Yet ostensibly one might ask how it is that we behave differently from all the nations, they being the majority, when Scripture says, “favor the multitude” (Ex. 23:2)?   To avoid this difficulty, the Lord commanded, “Take a census,” so that the Israelites be enumerable, and that which is enumerable, even if it is only one in a thousand, does not become insignificant; thus the people of Israel live on.

It should be added that the above also explains the answer given by the Talmud in Tractate Yoma regarding the contradiction between the two parts of the verse quoted above from Hoshea, the first implying that Israel is countable, the second saying that they will not be countable:   “There is no difficulty here, for one case applies to times when the will of G-d is obeyed, the other to times when the will of G-d is not obeyed.”  The simple explanation is that when G-d’s will is done, then Israel “cannot be measured our counted,” but when G-d’s will is not done, then they are few and can be counted.  However, in the light of Rabbi Schneider’s remarks we can reverse the Talmudic answer: when the Lord’s will is done, then due to His fond feelings towards Israel for doing His will the Holy One, blessed be He, counts them, and thereby they become important, not insignificant; this does not pertain when, Heaven forefend, they do not do His will, for then the Holy One, blessed be He, does not count them and they become insignificant amidst the nations of the world. [4]

 

*****

Israel Independence Day and Jerusalem Liberation Day fall during the counting of the omer.  Divine providence thus intimates to us that these days are to be counted, Independence Day being the 20th day of the omer and Jerusalem Day, the 43rd day of omer.   Now, that which is counted does not become insignificant, neither from within nor without.  It cannot be made insignificant by the other nations, nor by those among us who refuse to acknowledge these days and their significance.

Furthermore, this year Israel Independence Day falls during the week after the double reading, Tazria-Metzora, which discusses counting days. Likewise, it is considered the week of the double reading, Aharei Mot-Kedoshim, in the first of which we have the counting of sprinkling in the sacrificial service of the Day of Atonement, and in the second of which we have the counting of years of orlah.  In a leap year it falls during the week in which we read Emor, where the festivals and counting the omer are mentioned, or in the week of Parashat Be-Har, which deals with counting the years. [5]   In regular years Jerusalem Day fall during the week of Parashat Bemidbar, in which we have the census of the Israelites.  In leap years it falls during the week of Parashat Naso, containing the census of the Levites. [6]   Each and every one of these parashot speaks of counting in one form or another. Thus we see that both Israel Independence Day and Jerusalem Liberation Day come under the category of things that are counted, and hence the proof of their importance.

                                                                                                                                         

 



*We published this article ten years ago, and give it here in a renewed version.

 

[1] The Hidda, in Devash le-Fi, Section 200.21, briefly presents ten arguments in rebuttal of this assertion.

[2] Zoharei Hamah al ha-Torah, New York 1982, beginning of Parashat Bemidbar.

[3] It should be noted that Numbers Rabbah, loc. sit., cites the verse, “He did not do so for any other nation,” as Schneider wrote, and immediately thereafter says:  “and thus ‘He has exalted the horn of His people’ (=made them triumphant; Ps. 148:14), which accords with Rabbi Schneider’s interpretation.

[4] Cf. Noam Elimelech, at the beginning of the chapter on Parashat Bemidbar, for a sort of commentary on the Talmudic passage.   Also cf. Pardes Yosef he-Hadash, by R. A. D. Mandelbaum, at the beginning of Parashat Bemidbar, citing additional sources on interpretation of Scripture based on the   halakhic ruling concerning enumerable things.  Also see the remarks of Rabbi Abraham Englard in his book, Imrei Avraham, Bnei Brak 1982, Parshat Be-Midbar.

[5] In 1948, which was a leap year, the 5th of Iyar (Independence Day) fell on a Friday, and on the Sabbath Parashat Emor was read.

[6] In 1967, which was a leap year, the 28th of Iyyar (Jerusalem Day) fell on a Wednesday, and on the Sabbath Parashat Naso was read, containing the census of the Levites who minister the holy service, thus hinting at Jerusalem.