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The Systems of the Jewish Year

When Does a Partnership Work

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

I would like to share two thoughts with you, connected with “sfiras ha-omer”, the counting of the Omer, which takes place for the forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuos.

In this week’s parsha it is written: “And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of the Meeting, and came out, and blessed the people, and the glory of the L-rd appeared to all the people” (Levit. 9:23). This was on the day after the seven days of consecration of the Tabernacle, after it had been completed. Rashi gives an explanation why Moses and Aaron went into the Tent together: when Aaron had seen previously how his own offerings had not resulted in the Shechina (Divine Presence) coming down, he assumed it was his own fault, because G-d was angry with him, so he asked Moses to go in with him to pray for the Shechina to appear.

Meanwhile, Moses had also been officiating on these seven days of consecration, without the Shechina appearing, and when the people of Israel noticed this, they told Moses that it was their fault, because of the sin of the Golden Calf, and he responed that the Shechina would still come as a result of the offerings of Aaron, who was more worthy than he!

One of the benefits conferred by a partnership in any enterprise, is that one can blame the partner if the enterprise is unsuccessful, and take the praise for oneself otherwise. Here, however, we have a partnership of three: Moses, Aaron and the children of Israel, there seems to be an apparent failure, yet instead of reacting in the normal fashion and shifting the blame they each blame themselves!

Why is this? We can understand this by considering the nature of their enterprise, which was the construction of the Tabernacle. It had one goal, and one goal only—to bring the Divine presence closer to them. (The Hebrew for offering is “korban”, the purpose of which is to effect “keruv”, the bringing of oneself closer to G-d.) Being that G-ds glory and not personal glory was at stake here, it is understandable that the various partners did not seek credit in the case of success, and excuses or alibis in the case of failure. Their attitude was : “Let us do whatever we can to make this work”, and not: “Let’s see whom we can blame!”

For a completely contrasting attitude, consider the partnership of Balak and Bilam, for a much less noble purpose! We read (Num. 23) how Bilam told Balak to build him seven altars, and prepare seven sacrifices, which King Balak did, all on his own (according to the Midrash), after which Bilam told G-d: “I have prepared the seven altars”—taking credit (if that is the right word here) for someone else’s work!

There is an important lesson here, which is especially appropriate now, during the counting of the Omer. Twenty-four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva are supposed to have died during this period. According to the Gemara this was a punishment because of their lack of respect for each other. When someone has a difficult time giving honor to their fellows it is usually because they feel insecure about their own honor. This suggests that they were studying at least partly for the wrong reason—to gain personal honor. If they had been studying for the right reason—for its own sake—for the honor of G-d, they would not have been so stingy in the respect due to their fellow students.

My second thought concerns the Vilna Gaon, whose devotion to learning was legendary. There are many stories on this topic. For example, one of his students once saw him weeping in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. When he asked why, the Vilna Gaon told him that he had calculated that he had wasted two and a half minutes in the previous year, not thinking about Torah, while tying his shoelaces.

Now in the back of the Siddur of the Vilna Gaon there is a collection of his customs, the “Maasei Rav”, compiled by a student of his. One of these customs of the Vilna Gaon noted here was to study with special intensity during the period of the counting of the Omer. When considering the Vilna Gaon this is almost humorous. It is not easy for us to imagine how he could possibly have increased the intensity of his studying during this period!

For most of us, however, there is not that problem. It is quite clear to us how we could increase our level of learning now. And that is what I want to urge everyone to do during this period. If you do not go to Jewish education classes at all on a regular basis, start now—for an hour a week, say. If you already go for an hour a week, go now for two hours a week. And so on. If there are no classes at all in your neighborhood, learn on your own—although that is not as good as studying in company. Better still, try to set up classes. Contact me, if I can be of help.

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