By: Chaya Sora Jungreis-Gertzulin
It is now the period of Sefirah, counting the days from the second night of Pesach until Shavuos, the time that the Jewish nation received the Torah on Mount Sinai.
“U’sfartem lachem, And you shall count for yourself.” (Vayikra 23:15) Sefirah has the power to be a transformative experience. Seven weeks. Forty-nine days. The Sefirah count is a “count up”. One day to the Omer… four days… a week… In contrast to a “count down”… Ten…nine…eight…seven… By counting up, each day builds on the previous one. Each day comes with new opportunities for spiritual growth and elevation.
The word Sefirah shares a common root with the Hebrew word “sapir”, meaning sapphire, a crystal. Sefirah is a time of introspection, a time to crystalize our goals, our mission in life.
In the prayer following the counting of the Sefirah, we beseech HaShem “U’le’kadesheinu b’ke’du’shas’chah ha’elyonah, To be sanctified with kedushah, holiness of the Above…” At times, we feel so far away from where we wants to be, from our life goals, from being close to HaShem, thinking we will never get there. As we count Sefirah, we realize that it is doable, we can make life changes, day by day. If we set our goal, make a plan, and stick to it, we can accomplish great things.
This Shabbos, we read Achrei Mos- Kedoshim, a parshah which teaches us the importance of living one’s life as a kadosh, a holy person.
A robotics competition was held in Houston, Texas this past week. It is an annual international event drawing the brightest young minds from high schools throughout the world, emphasizing innovations in STEM studies – science, technology, engineering, and math.
I came across a story written by Sivan Rahav-Meir, a well-known and admired Israeli journalist. She wrote about the Israeli team from the Amit High School in Modi’in who reached the final stage of the competition. But there was a problem. The finals were scheduled for Shabbos.
Come Shabbos morning, the team was not to be found alongside their booth. Instead, they left behind “a Shabbos table” – Shabbos candles, challah, a Kiddush cup and an Israeli flag. The team also penned a letter explaining their absence, and what Shabbos means to them.
The announcer at the competition read their letter for all the other teams and the thousands of participants to hear.
“We come from religious backgrounds. Our faith is an integral part of who we are. Saturdays – Shabbat holds a special significance in the Jewish faith. It is a time when we disconnect, and focus on our spiritual well-being, families, G-d and community.
Because of this, our team will not be present and competing during the remainder of the competition.
We are thankful for the opportunity to be here. We congratulate all our peer teams who made this event so inspiring for us.
We wish all teams the very best of luck.”
It was at that moment that a great Kiddush HaShem happened. Students from all over gave a standing ovation and cheered for the Israeli team. The announcer then said: “Thank you for the reminder that there are other things outside the world of robotics that are also important.”
How proud I was, and how proud we should all be, of a group of high school students who put Shabbos first. Students who gave up the chance of “winning it all” sticking to their convictions and living their ideals. Young people, who in their own way made a Kiddush HaShem. They lived by the words of kedoshim te’he’yu, to be a holy, sanctified nation, and answered to a Higher Authority.
As we count the days towards Shavuos, a time when we renew our commitment to Torah and mitzvos, we can all learn from these young people who truly lived the words of “Na’aseh v’nishmah, We will do and we will listen”.
Being a kadosh isn’t just between man and HaShem, but also includes man’s relationship with his fellow. The teaching of “V’ahavtah l’rei’ah’chah ko’mo’chah, And you shall love your fellow as yourself” can be found in Parshas Kedoshim. (Vayikra 19:18). In fact, Rashi on this posuk comments, “So says Rabbi Akiva. This is a fundamental principle in the Torah.” The Kopitchnitz Rebbe, zt”l adds, that the commandment to love your fellow is not limited to loving holy and pious people, people who are easy to love. Rather, HaShem is telling us to love everyone – even those whom we may find it difficult to get along with.
The Maharal notes that from Pesach to Lag B’Omer we count 32 days. Thirty-two is the gematria of both lev, heart, and kavod, respect. During these days of Sefira, we should internalize the lesson of Rabbi Akiva. A lesson of showing love and respect to all others.
V’ahavtah l’rei’ah’chah ko’mo’chah. To love your fellow as yourself. To honor the G-dly neshamah in each person, thereby creating a true Kiddush HaShem. To live a life committed to HaShem’s mitzvos.
Kedoshim te’he’yu, to be a holy people. When we live our lives as kedoshim, we are the beneficiaries. It shapes and molds us. We become better people. We learn honesty and integrity. Kindness and compassion. Love and understanding. Patience and tolerance. We elevate our very being. To live as a kadosh not only leaves an impression on those around us, but has an effect on us as well.
The Talmud teaches “Sheh-ye’hei shem Shomayim mis-ahev al yodecha, That the name of Heaven should become beloved through you.” (Yoma 86a) That was the message proclaimed loud and clear by the high school students in Houston. Ultimately, they were the real winners.
Chaya Sora can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was written L’zecher Nishmas / In Memory Of HaRav Meshulem ben HaRav Osher Anshil HaLevi, zt”l and Rebbetzin Esther bas HaRav Avraham HaLevi, zt”l