Yosef was a bright, popular, and charismatic 12-year-old. His family was well off. He had everything and wasn’t ashamed to brag about it. When he entered 7th grade, his teacher, Rabbi Levy, felt trapped at first. How could he improve Yosef’s character without offending his parents who were donors to the school?
Eventually, Rabbi Levy came up with a plan and announced to the school, “We’re going to run an experiment. Who wants to participate?”
Of course Yosef volunteered, and the rabbi chose him as well as several students from younger grades. Rabbi Levy instructed them to sit beside Yosef. Handing out three sheets of paper along with colored pencils and markers, Rabbi Levy said, “Boys, please draw a vase with flowers in it. Let’s see who does the best job!”
Yosef thought, “This isn’t much of a competition! Of course I’ll draw the best vase.”
“But there’s a catch,” the rabbi suddenly said. “If you receive a paper with the outline of a vase and flowers already on it, just color in the outline. And if the lines are dotted, just connect the dots and color in the outline you created.”
He gave a five-year-old a paper with the images already printed. Then he handed the eight-year-old a sheet of paper with images in dotted lines. Finally, the rabbi gave Yosef a blank piece of paper and said, “Begin!”
After a few minutes, the boys completed the task. Rabbi Levy complimented each kid and sent the younger boys back to their class. Then he turned to Yosef and asked, “What do you think the point of this experiment was?”
“At first, I didn’t think it was fair that you asked us to draw the same thing since you gave the other boys more material to work with. Then I realized that they’re younger and needed the extra lines because they wouldn’t have been able to draw them by themselves. So at the end it was pretty fair.”
“That’s right! Are they better than you because they started with more material to work with?”
“The opposite,” Yosef responded. “It shows I’m more capable since I didn’t need all those things to get the job done.”
“Correct. And wouldn’t it be silly for the little kids to brag that I gave them more material?”
Rabbi Levy then explained, “In this class, some people appear to have everything – good grades, wealth, lots of friends. These students were given more materials to start life with. Wouldn’t it be silly for the students to boast about the fact that they were given more?”
Yosef took his rebbe’s lesson to heart, and his behavior began to improve.
* * * * *
We’re supposed to say of ourselves, “I am but dust and ashes,” but also, “The whole world was created for me.” How do we reconcile these two extremes?
Another, seemingly unrelated, question: Why do we count the Omer by enumerating both the days and the weeks? It’s not enough to say, for example: “18 days.” We have to add: “which is two weeks and four days of the Omer.” Why? Can you imagine me saying, “Can you come to my birthday party? It’s in three days, which is 72 hours?”
A week is a collection of seven consecutive days. In rabbinic thinking, seven represents nature, which Hashem created in seven days. The dimensions, too, are represented by seven. A cube, for example, has six sides – plus an inside. We count weeks to remind ourselves that Hashem created the world, and runs it.
Many of us have the tendency to worry – about parnassah, about whom to marry, if we’ll have children, etc. These days, we have a particular craving for control, and tend to worry about everything!
So we count weeks to recognize that not everything in life is up to us. Hashem is omnipotent, and makes everything work out the way it’s supposed to.
But we also count days. Days go beyond weeks – we can have a week plus one day – and anything beyond a week represents that which is beyond the natural world. Hashem gives us special power in this realm. The Gemara (Berachos 33b) tells us, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven, except fear of Heaven.”
So we also count the days of the Omer because we determine who we become, not Hashem. We decode whom we will become spiritually.
The Netziv was a very holy man, but as a young child he didn’t enjoy cheder, and he gave his parents a hard time.
One day, he overheard his parents talking. “We’ll train him to become a shoemaker. He won’t be a scholar, but what can we do?” they said.
That night, the Netziv had a dream in which he was an old man, and Hashem asked him, “Where are your books?”
“What books? Here are my shoes. I made them, became very wealthy, and I even gave tzedakah! But I was no scholar.”
Hashem said, “No, no, no. You could have been a scholar! You see these books? All of them could have been written by you!”
Upon awakening, the young Netziv decided to change focus.
We all have a mission no one else can achieve. It’s our choice to fulfill it or not. As we make our way through the Omer, counting both weeks and days, let’s remember that a lifetime of Torah and mitzvot is made up of our daily efforts but be humble enough to recognize that the tools with which we achieve our goals come from Hashem.