During Pesach we experience liberation from slavery, followed by the dramatic encounter with Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. Then we trek through the desert to the great moment at Har Sinai.
This sequence anticipates what our Sages tell us will happen at the Final Redemption. The Chofetz Chaim is quoted as having said that “we can learn about the end of our exile from what happened at the end of our exile in Egypt” (Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, zt”l, as noted in Redemption Unfolding by A. A. Mandelbaum).
It is well to have this in mind, because we are going to need all the help we can get in the days before Mashiach arrives.
Today the foundations and pillars of our civilization are shaking, just as the foundations and pillars of ancient Egypt shook during the Ten Plagues. The people and the land of Israel are surrounded today, just as we were surrounded at the Red Sea.
When Hashem took us out of Egypt, we were at Mem Tes Sha’are Tumah, almost completely submerged in the quicksand of Egyptian idolatry and immorality. As Rashi tells us (Shemos 13:18), only one-fifth of our people made it out of Egypt at all; the rest had become so assimilated that they disappeared during the Plague of Darkness.
Even those who left with Moshe Rabbeinu were redeemed only through Hashem’s mercy. Extrapolating from that, we can assume that Hashem will redeem us at the time of Mashiach not because we are deserving, but out of chesed. As we say in Shemoneh Esrei, God will send a Redeemer “l’ma’an shemo b’ahavah…for His sake, with love.”
But if we were on such a low level, how did we become worthy to receive the Torah? What happened between Egypt and Sinai?
The answer is that during that seven-week march through the desert, our job was to elevate ourselves so that we would retroactively merit our liberation and try to become worthy of receiving the Torah.
Today, we refer to those seven weeks as the days of Sefiras HaOmer, and our job is not simply to count the days between Pesach and Shavuos but to use each passing day to elevate ourselves. Just as we had to climb from the depths of impurity in Egypt to try to merit standing before God at Mount Sinai, so today we try to prepare ourselves for receiving the Torah once again by working on our middos during these seven weeks.
And so too we are preparing for the Great Day on which we will be redeemed forever from Exile. As we say, “Master of the Universe, You commanded us…to count the Omer in order to cleanse us from our encrustations of evil and from our contaminations….In the merit of the Omer Count…may there be corrected whatever blemish I have caused in the sefira….May I be cleansed and sanctified…and may it correct our lives, spirits and souls from all sediment and blemish….”
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Since the Source of our protection throughout our long and challenging history is the Torah, and since we are now in the process of preparing once again to receive the Torah, I would suggest we concentrate very deeply in the weeks ahead on the spiritual program called Sefiras HaOmer, the crash course in self-improvement that this period affords us. After all, we are doing nothing less than ensuring our own personal and national survival – in fact, the survival of the entire world.
I think it is fitting here to quote from the words of Mrs. Chava Sandler, wife and mother of the recent martyrs of Toulouse, France: “To all those who wish to bring consolation to our family and contentment to the souls of the departed: Let’s continue their lives on this earth. Parents, please kiss your children. Tell them how much you love them, and how dear it is to your heart that they be living examples of our Torah, imbued with the fear of Heaven and love of their fellow man. Please increase your study of Torah, whether on your own or with your family and friends. Help others who may find study difficult to achieve alone. Please bring more light into the world by kindling the Sabbath candles this and every Friday night.”
These are the words of a woman from whom so much was taken. Instead of drowning in bitterness, she gave us the message we need in these challenging times. She encouraged all of the Children of Israel to cleave to the One Source of strength, consolation and direction we possess in this world.
If you have read my book From Central Park To Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul, you know I was raised in a home devoid of Torah. Both my parents were Jewish. They were also great people, and we lived in a metropolis filled with Jews, but there was no Jewisness in our life.
Well, almost none. I, like every Jew, possessed the spark of Jewish fire called the pintele Yid, which was burned into my neshamah at Mount Sinai, where I stood with my people so many centuries ago.
The Gemara tells us that an angel teaches us the entire Torah in the womb. After that nine-month “chavrusa,” the angel strikes us above the upper lip at birth and, with that shock, we forget all that we learned (Niddah 30b). All the noise and clamor of this world then bombards us, and the voice of the angel is forgotten in the jangle of “civilization.” But perhaps we are unable or unwilling to forget the voice of the malach and that holy Torah we absorbed before we entered this world. Perhaps we are fortunate enough to hear words of Torah during our lifetime. Perhaps we pause and we allow those words to sink in.
“Wait a minute! I have heard those words before!”
That is when we remember the angel who taught us in the womb.
So, though I grew up in a secular world, I knew something was missing. I couldn’t live; I was constantly afraid.
What was I afraid of?
Yes, I was afraid of myself.
Decades later, joined by my wife, I was blessed to find Torah. We had followed countless paths. We rejected them all because each turned out to be a dead end. In 1974, in the city of Newburgh, New York – after all other paths had failed us – we met Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, who opened the world of Torah to us. Thus, our life began.
We learned about the yetzer hara, the evil inclination – the force within us that tries to steer us in exactly the opposite direction from the Torah. We learned that the yetzer hara is a tireless opponent, lying in wait constantly in order to deflect us, God forbid, from the Path of Life.
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In general, I don’t think we take the yetzer hara too seriously because it is not so clear to us what it is. But perhaps we can use the period of sefirah to come to grips with this opponent that has destroyed so many lives since Adam and Chava fell under its influence in the first days of Creation.
The yetzer hara can be brought under control. As we say every day in davening, “Let the Evil Inclination not dominate us… and compel our Evil Inclination to be subservient to You.” The paradigm for this struggle is the classic encounter between Yaakov Avinu and the malach of Eisav.
Yaakov asked the malach, “What is your name?”
We have to identify our opponent.
I have been thinking lately about the yetzer hara. When I speak publicly about my life, I try constantly to refine my narrative because I want my listeners to identify with my experiences and realize they are not alone; someone has been on this path before. Today many people feel depressed and need to know there is hope.
Why was I constantly afraid as a child?
As I said above, I was afraid of myself. Even as a young child I felt there was some force within me that would compel me to do things against my will, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Now I realize that this “force” has a name.
This is amazing. As a “sophisticated” frum adult I tend to regard the yetzer hara as somewhat theoretical, but as a small child – without exposure to Torah – not only did I know what it was, I was face to face with it every second. And I was scared stiff!
That doesn’t mean I could deal with it, but I knew it existed. In fact, my entire life revolved around the struggle against it. I tried and failed to overpower it. But that very failure drove me to search relentlessly for a way to dominate it, and – as I said earlier – that lifelong search finally brought me to the gates of Torah, because everything else had failed.
What does this have to do with Sefiras HaOmer?
I would suggest that we try during these seven weeks to look beyond all our myriad problems to the underlying cause of all our tzouris: the ageless struggle against our inner opponent. Instead of letting it remain nameless and formless, let us follow our Father Jacob’s example and seek to identify it.
“Jacob wrestled with him until the break of dawn…. Then [the malach] said, ‘Let me go, for dawn has broken.’ ” (Bereishis 32:25)
An echo of this theme occurs in the writings of Dovid HaMelech, who speaks about the fate of Yerushalayim in the tumultuous days before Mashiach: “God is in its midst. It shall not totter. God will help it toward morning” (Psalm 46 with ArtScroll commentary).
“Night” is galus. These two passages seem to indicate that just before the end of our current Exile the children of Yaakov will succeed in overcoming this malach, and that will be a prelude to the “break of dawn,” the coming of Mashiach.
Yaakov Avinu says, “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” at which point the malach informs Yaakov his name has been changed to “Yisrael” (Bereishis 32:27ff).
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What does it all mean?
I see from my own observation of life that there are three types of people. One group is so afraid of the yetzer hara that it falls completely under its domination. These people run from God, living as if He does not exist, which is exactly the yetzer hara’s goal. In their case, the yetzer hara has completely succeeded.
Rabbi Yaakov Hillel has (in a recent commentary on Pirkei Avos) brilliantly characterized the other two classes of people. Both are trying to follow the lead of our Father Yaakov. Both classes understand that, in order to live, one must battle the yetzer hara directly, but let’s try to differentiate between them.
Let’s try to imagine the Beis HaMikdosh. The “middle group” stands, so to speak, in the kodesh, the holy area between the shulchan (which represents worldly success), and the menorah (which represents spirituality). This is praiseworthy, but not the highest level.
At the highest level are those who have elevated themselves to a life completely dedicated to serving Hashem. If you think this is impossible, just look at the heroes of our people down through the ages. Look at Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid HaMelech.
Can such a person exist today? Look at the late Mirrer rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l. He began as a typical yeshiva boy in Chicago and became a legendary example of total dedication to Torah and to his beloved talmidim.
Another such person is Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who recently was hospitalized with life-threatening problems. A well-known rabbi said recently, “If Rav Elyashiv is in danger, we are all in danger.” Why? Rav Elayshiv protects all of us because he has sublimated his personal life to the life of the nation and the service of Hashem.
The point is that such a lifestyle is possible. It requires great personal dedication, but it is an aim to which we all can aspire. I say this because the challenge now before us is so great that we are called upon to go to great lengths to protect ourselves. The Haggadah tells us that in Mitzraim there were plagues within plagues: “Rabbi Eliezer said that…in Egypt the Egyptians were smitten with forty plagues, while at the Sea they were smitten with two hundred plagues,” and Rabbi Akiva says “fifty” and “two hundred fifty” respectively.
In our day also, we face plague upon plague. Perhaps, just as in ancient Egypt where the solution was a complete reevaluation of life, we need to go to the very source of our problems to uproot our troubles. We left crumbling Egypt and followed Moshe Rabbeinu to Har Sinai, where we submitted ourselves totally to the Master of the Universe. Perhaps in our own day it is appropriate to contemplate a complete cure to our malady.
In preparation for that, let us try to confront the root of our problem, the ancient conflict with the power of evil. As the Gemara tells us, “Barasi yetzer hara, barasi Torah tavlin – I created a yetzer hara, and I created the Torah as a medicine” (Kiddushin 30b).
Perhaps we can follow our Father Jacob’s example and cease to fear the yetzer hara. The ancient verse will then apply to us: “No longer will it be said that your name is Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with the Divine and with man and have overcome.”
The name “Jacob” is associated with Exile.
“Yisrael” expresses our ability to overcome all challenges.
May we soon see the burst of light that will herald the Dawn of our Redemption.
Roy Neuberger’s latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim), is available in English, Hebrew and Spanish, with French and Russian editions in preparation. Roy is also the author of “From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Russian) and “Worldstorm.”
About the Author: Roy Neuberger's latest book, “2020 Vision” (Feldheim) is available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian, and Georgian. An e-edition is available at www.feldheim.com. Roy is also the author of "From Central Park to Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul” (available in English, Hebrew and Russian, and Georgian) and “Worldstorm.” Roy and Leah Neuberger speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his websites www.tosinai.com and www.2020visionthebook.com.
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