Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pesah, Sukkot and Sefirat HaOmer

As I have discussed in several earlier posts, the two seven-day festivals instituted by the Torah, Pesah and Sukkot, both address elements of our physical existence. Pesah changes our staple food from conventional bread to matsah. Sukkot alters our dwelling from a permanent house to a Sukkah. Both holidays are also followed up by one-day celebrations that revolve around the intellectual or spiritual dimension of Jewish life - Shavuot and Shemini Atseret, respectively.

One of the unusual features of Pesah is the "intrusion" of the counting of the Omer. Immediately after the first day of Passover, we begin the process of moving toward Shavuot. We don't even wait for the seven day festival to conclude before setting our sights on the next holiday in the calendar. Indeed, the Torah commands us to harvest the Omer offering - and, hence, to begin the count - right after the holiday, on the "morrow of the rest day". This is taken to mean that we should not even wait until the next morning; harvesting and counting start as soon as the first day of the festival is over. What is the rush? Why can't we complete the celebration of Pesah before hastily transferring our focus to Shavuot?

The noteworthy starting point of the Omer count highlights a more general quality of Pesah as contrasted with Sukkot. Sukkot is the epitome of a joyous holiday in the Torah. Every one of its seven days has a distinct set of sacrifices that are to be offered. We say a blessing each time we dwell in the Sukkah. The four species are taken every day with a blessing and full Hallel is recited for the duration of the holiday. The Jewish people are, at least ideally, bidden to remain in Jerusalem and "celebrate before Hashem for seven days". The eighth day, Shemini Atseret, ushers in a whole new level of holiness that warrants a distinct sacrificial order, special blessings, prayers and an additional element of joy.

In the case of Pesah, on the other hand, all of the positive mitsvot - the paschal sacrifice, eating matsah and maror, telling the story of the Exodus and reciting the full Hallel - are fulfilled on the first night and day of the festival. Thereafter, observance of Pesah manifests itself only as the abstention from hametz for the entire week. The sacrifices offered in the Temple on the seven days of Pesah are all identical. The Jewish people are not especially encouraged to remain in Jerusalem after the first day of the holiday; indeed, the Torah states (with regard to the Paschal sacrifice) "and you shall roast it and eat it in the place that Hashem, your God, will choose, and in the morning you may turn back and return to your tents. For six days shall you eat matsot and on the seventh day shall be a day of assembly dedicated to Hashem, your God; you shall do no work." The implication is clear that, unlike the days of Sukkot, the final six days of Pesah are of lesser significance than the first. Even the seventh day, with its prohibition of work, does not have its own identity, blessings or special sacrificial order; it is more like a day of Hol Hamoed that has been promoted than a bona fide holiday in its own right.

What is the reason for the stark contrast between the respective structures of Pesah and Sukkot? And how can this explain our premature commencement of the counting of the Omer?

I believe that Pesah and Sukkot represent two opposite orientations to the material world. Pesah is about breaking our attachments and addictions to the luxuries of physical life. We distance ourselves from idolatry through the Paschal sacrifice and embrace matsah, the bread of servitude, as our staple food. In essence, though, our observance of the holiday is reflected in the negative, through privation. We define ourselves on Pesah by what we are not - we are not Egyptian sheep-worshippers. We are not hedonistic pleasure-seekers. We are prepared, by virtue of our disentanglement from these alternative lifestyles, to begin the process of receiving the Torah and serving Hashem.

This is why the first day of Pesah stands apart from the remaining days. It is on the first day that, through sacrificing the Pesah offering and adopting matsah as our bread, we clearly demonstrate our non-Egyptian character as a nation and our readiness to pursue a transcendent purpose. The six subsequent days make the impact of this demonstration manifest, but do not contribute anything to its content. Our observance of Pesah consists, then, in a major "event" on the first day, followed by mere abstention from hametz for the other six.

This fits beautifully with the lesson of another fascinating verse in the Torah that I have addressed on this blog in the past, "do not eat on it [the Paschal sacrifice] hametz; for seven days you shall eat matsot - the bread of affliction - on it." We are only permitted to eat the Paschal sacrifice on the first night of Passover. Why does the Torah command us to eat matsah "on it" - that is to say, with the Paschal offering - all seven days? The answer is simple. The Torah means to draw our attention to the fact that by abstaining from hametz/eating matsah seven days, we are carrying the message of the Pesah offering forward; it is still with us, we are still reacting to it. The revelation of Hashem's presence represented by the sacrifice has inspired us to take up the bread of servitude but to devote our energies to the service of the true King - Hashem - rather than the service of man.

We can now see why Pesah seems to stop short after the first day; as soon as it no longer expresses itself in positive activity, it no longer warrants full Hallel, new sacrifices, special blessings or an extended stay in Jerusalem. There is nothing novel to be had on the subsequent days, only a continuation and consolidation of what has already, at least essentially, been accomplished. Even the seventh day, which commemorates the splitting of the Sea, really just drives home the principle of the futility of the worship of human beings and/or idols and the ultimate sovereignty of Hashem. It is a reflection back on the implications of the Exodus and the significance of our week-long observance of the holiday rather than the introduction of any new theme.

Sukkot, on the other hand, is about establishing a home in the framework of service of Hashem. Unlike Pesah, which is about extricating ourselves and moving upward and away from materialism, Sukkot is about transitioning downward from the transcendence of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to the gritty realities of life. This is no simple matter; living in the Sukkah day by day brings us ever closer to the ideal of integration and harmony of the material and intellectual elements within us. Our success in progressing toward this ideal is celebrated joyously on Shemini Atseret.

Because every day of Sukkot embodies another stage of progress toward a desired goal, every day has its own sacrifical service, a full Hallel, Lulav and Etrog, etc. The joy of Sukkot extends to all seven days, waxing rather than waning as we build up to the culmination of the process on Shemini Atseret. Unlike Pesah, which expresses itself in the creation and sustaining of a negative (i.e., the avoidance of hametz), Sukkot is a holiday full of constructive and positive commandments, where every day is a milestone worthy of celebration.

This approach to Pesah can also help us explain why we begin counting to Shavuot as soon as the first day of Pesah is concluded. The break away from Egypt leaves us in an intellectual and moral vacuum; we know what we are not, but the mitsvot of Pesah do not provide us with the means to express what we are. For this, we must wait for Shavuot, the occasion of the giving of the Torah. So even as we are still abstaining from hametz to demonstrate the pervasive impact of the message of the first day of Pesah on our lives and households, we are simultaneously preparing ourselves, day after day, to stand at Mount Sinai as true servants of Hashem. The latter six days of Pesah form a part of this transformation, but six more weeks are necessary before we ascend to the pinnacle of spiritual development commemorated on Shavuot. And the desire to fill our inner emptiness with Torah substance is so powerful that we cannot help but initiate our countdown to Shavuot as soon as the first day of Pesah is over!

Hag Kasher V'Sameah to all. After the holiday, I hope to further expand on some of these themes.


SJ said...

read my blog. XD

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Interesting post. I particularly like your use of "materialism". Ralbag would be proud.