Thursday, May 15, 2014


Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW
Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead
Rebbe/Guidance Counselor – ASHAR/ Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch


          A cow and a chicken were walking down the street together one afternoon. They were admiring the sights when, suddenly, the chicken became very excited. “Hey cow, take a look at that billboard. Do you see the advertisement? We are famous!” The cow slowly turned its head to see an advertisement for quality beef and eggs. The cow studied it for a moment and then dejectedly turned its head back down and continued walking silently.
The chicken squawked, “Aren’t you proud to be a celebrity?” The cow wryly replied, “I understand why you are excited, for you it’s just a small contribution. But for me that requires a full commitment!” 

          The final parsha of Chumash Vaykira commences with a beautiful detailed list of blessings that Klal Yisroel would merit, “If My ways you shall follow.” Rashi explains that following in G-d’s ways entails “ameilus baTorah” toiling to study and comprehend Torah.
          The commentators question the vernacular of the pasuk. The root-word, “chok” refers to laws that were commanded without explanation or reason. Mitzvos such as shaatnez[1] and Parah Adumah[2] are classic examples of chukim. We adhere to such laws simply because G-d commanded us to do so. Toiling in Torah study however, hardly seems like a precept without reason.
Torah was the purpose of creation, the infallible Word of G-d, which transcends time and place. It seems rather obvious why it is important to constantly engage in study of Torah. If so, why does the Torah utilize the word “b’chukosai”, which has an implication that it is a commandment we observe without understanding the reason?
          The word “chok” is the root of the word “chakuk” which means to engrave[3]. When something is written on a piece of paper, although the writing is visible on the paper one cannot say that the words are part of the paper. They are merely written on the surface of the paper. However, when something is engraved onto a piece of silver or burned into a piece of wood, the writing becomes an inextricable component of the vessel/slab. The writing becomes fused into it. 
          When the Torah instructs us to perform specific commandments without offering a logical reason it is called a ‘chok’ in the sense that the mitzvah must be “chokuk” upon our hearts. It must be engraved on our hearts and ingrained in our souls so that we perform them out of sheer devotion to the Word of G-d.
          It is for this reason that toiling in Torah is referred to as “b’chukosai”. Although we understand that Torah study is so vital, our reason for immersing ourselves in constant study must transcend logic and rationale. Our attitude toward Torah study must be because we recognize that it is our spiritual lifeline and, therefore, it must be ingrained in our hearts.
“For it is our life and the length of our days and in it we will toil day and night.” “It is a tree of life for those who grasp it and its supporters will become wealthy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all of its pathways are peaceful.” We must appreciate and recognize the centrality of Torah in our lives and in the creation and continuation of all of humanity.
          The gemara also explains that chok is an expression of sustenance[4]. Torah is our spiritual nourishment; the sole guarantee of our eternity as the Nation of G-d[5].

          The holiday of Lag BaOmer includes the celebration of the life and legacy of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The Gemara[6] relates in detail the story of Rabbi Shimon’s escape from the hands of the Romans who wanted to execute him. Together with his son Rabbi Elazar, they hid in a cave for thirteen years. They sustained themselves from a brook of fresh water and a carob tree. Throughout that time they did nothing but study Torah and pray.
          Rabbi Shimon is the author of the holy and mystical Zohar, the source of kabbalah, which reveals the esoteric spiritual ‘secrets’ of Torah. When he revealed those hidden parts of Torah to the world, he also revealed a powerful spiritual light. It is for that reason that we light fires and “add light” on Lag BaOmer with great bonfires.   

          Shulchan Aruch[7] notes that the holidays of Purim and Lag BaOmer always fall out on the same day of the week, indicating a connection between them. Both are weekdays, and both are holidays of intense joy. Both allude to the essential holiness of even the simplest “weekday” Jew and both are holidays when one has the ability to reignite his spiritual spark.
          On a deeper level, the victory of the holiday of Purim precipitated a mass wave of repentance and reacceptance of Torah. In fact, the reacceptance of Torah on Purim was, in a sense, deeper and more vital than the original acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. Although at Sinai the Jews exuberantly accepted the Torah, there was a level of coercion. After the Purim miracle however, they recommitted themselves to Torah out of sheer joy, devotion, and love[8]. The Purim holiday is a celebration of nationally renewed reaffirmation of our allegiance and complete subjugation to Torah. 
          Lag BaOmer too is the celebration of a complete commitment which brought about a revelation of Torah. Rabbi Shimon’s total immersion in Torah allowed him to gain access into the greatest secrets of Torah and to reveal many of those secrets to his disciples.
          Lag BaOmer also marks the beginning of the final third of Sefiras HaOmer. It is essentially the final stretch before the holiday of Shavuos, the annual celebration of our acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. The lesson of Lag BaOmer is that Torah requires complete commitment. It must be ingrained within us in order to become part of our essence. 

          Rabbi Shimon was a disciple of the great Rabbi Akiva. One of the many legendary statements of Rabbi Akiva is quoted in the final Mishnah in Tractate Yoma: “Rabbi Akiva said: Fortunate are you, O Israel! Before whom do you cleanse yourselves? Who cleanses you? Your Father in heaven! And it says: “The mikveh (ritual bath) of Israel is G-d.”[9] Just as a mikveh purifies the contaminated, so does the Holy One, blessed is He, purify Israel.”
          The waters of the mikveh symbolize the amniotic fluids that surround a fetus in its first experience of life. When one emerges from the mikveh it is a symbol of rebirth, a chance to begin anew reinvigorated. In order for one to purify himself in a mikveh, he must completely submerge himself in its waters. If even a finger remains above water, his entire body remains in its state of impurity.
          In order for one to merit spiritual cleansing he must totally commit himself to G-d. Even if one whose actions are lacking, if he is mentally committed, that is sufficient to warrant some level of connection with G-d. The only caveat is that it must be a true commitment, not merely a few trite contributions!

“If My ways you shall follow”
“Fortunate are you, O Israel”

[1] not wearing clothing that contain a combination of wool and linen
[2] the law that necessitates one who is impure via a dead body to be sprinkled with the ashes of the Red Heifer
[3] see commentary of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, Bereishis 49:10
[4] see Beitzah 16a
[5] The previous thoughts were based on the derasha  of Rabbi Yehoshua Kohl at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh Parshas Bechukosai 5767.
[6] Shabbos 33b (It is fascinating that the saga of Rashbi is found on daf 33, in that the day we celebrate Rashbi’s life is the 33rd day of the Omer)
[7] 428:1
[8] See Shabbos 88a
[9] Yirmiyah 17:13


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