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Parshas Acharei Mos - Kedoshim (5770)

"Earth Day" and the Omer

This Thursday, April 22nd, more than half a billion people all around the world are celebrating Earth Day, a day designed to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth's environment.

It all began forty years ago when Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin, responding to widespread environmental degradation, called for an environmental teach-in, or “Earth Day”, to be held on April 22, 1970. Over 20 million people participated that year, and Earth Day is now observed on April 22nd each year by more than 500 million people and several national governments in over 175 countries. Environmental groups have sought to make Earth Day into a day of action which changes human behavior and provokes policy changes.

It is interesting to note that the very first Earth Day in 1970 happens to have coincided with the 16th day of the month of Nissan in the Hebrew calendar – which is the second day of the Passover holiday and the first day of Sefiras HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer.

Great! - you’re probably thinking - what’s an “Omer” and how do you count it? And where are you going with this, Rabbi?

Well, I think that the seemingly random confluence of these two events on the calendar forty years ago highlights the unique role and mission of the Jewish people here on earth as outlined in the Torah.

But first, about the “Omer” …… In the days when there was a Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people would bring a barley offering on the second day of Passover (see Leviticus 23:10). This was called the Omer (Omer is the name of a dry measure, containing the volume of 43.2 average eggs. It is the amount of barley flour that must be brought, and is also the name by which the offering is known.)

The Torah (Leviticus 23:15) commands us to "count the Omer" – i.e. to count from the second day of Passover, the day upon which the Omer offering was brought in the Temple, forty-nine days leading up to the holiday of Shavuos, upon which the Jewish people receiving the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai. At the conclusion of the 49-day count, on the holiday of Shavuos, the Jewish people were commanded to bring a bread offering made from wheat flour called Shtei HaLechem, the “Two Loaves” (see Leviticus 23:16-17).

The Aruch HaShulchan in the Laws of Passover (489:3) explains the linkage between the offering of the Omer on the second day of Passover and the countdown starting from that same day to the holiday of Shavuos as follows:

As mentioned before, the Omer offering was composed of barley, which our Sages considered to be animal food. The bread offering on Shavuos, however, was composed of wheat - a more dignified grain, appropriate for human consumption. The main purpose of the mitzvah to count the days from Passover to Shavuos is to show our excitement and anticipation for the day when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. However, G-d commanded us to bring “animal food” at the beginning of the count, and “human food” at the end of the count to remind us that the main purpose of Torah and all its many laws is to change us from ‘animal” to “human” – i.e. to help us transcend our baser nature, which is driven by physical and material desires alone, and to make us into more spiritual beings who live more refined and G-d-conscious lives.

While it is certainly praiseworthy for the peoples of the earth to look for ways to improve our way of life and benefit society externally through science and technology, as well as to protect our planet by calling attention to a whole host of environmental issues so that we can have a sustainable future, the primary focus of each individual Jew, and the mission of the Jewish nation as a whole, has always been to be a “light unto the nations” through working on and improving our inner selves following the instruction and guidelines set forth in G-d’s holy Torah, thus helping to fix the world on the inside where it most counts.

This idea of the unique role of the Jewish people in fixing the world internally - one soul at a time - is beautifully illustrated in a story told by Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus Zt”l about the famed leader of pre-WWII East European Jewry, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohein, known to all as the Chafetz Chaim:

A granddaughter of the Chafetz Chaim was greatly influenced by various secular ideologies in her youth, and she abandoned the path of Torah. In her old age, she was able to leave Russia and come to Israel. There she met her cousin, Rabbi Hillel Zaks – another grandchild of the Chafetz Chaim – and told him the following story: “I once went to Zaide (grandfather) and told him, 'Zaide, why are you sitting in the dark, still studying your old volumes of Talmud? Come out into the world of light, and feast your eyes on the beginnings of the revolution of technology! It's a beautiful world out there!' My grandfather pointed to an airplane flying by, and told me, 'You see those airplanes? During World War I, they used to throw a box of dynamite out of the window of a plane to bring destruction on humanity below. Someday they are going to reach the moon. And those bombs? One day they are going to create bombs that will be able to destroy the whole world. That is what they make. But we make ‘menschen’ ”

I think that anyone who is alive and sentient today can appreciate that with all the great advancements in technology and environmental causes, the most crucial work of repairing our inner world – i.e. fixing broken lives, broken relationships, broken families, broken value systems – needs to be done if all our work for the environment is to have any purpose and meaning. And this crucial work is the task of the Jewish people as directed by the Torah.

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, in his brand new and insightful book Tales out of Jerusalem: Seven Gates to the City (Feldheim Publishers), says it best:

Our material technology may be cutting edge, but our spiritual technology has not moved one iota since ancient times. We are conquering outer space, but are nowhere near conquering inner space. Worse, we are hardly aware that we possess inner space. If we want to move forward as human beings, we would do well to take a careful second look at what our Torah and our Sages have to say to us about human nature and about spiritual technology.

So even as we join the rest of the world this week in celebrating Earth Day and performing “a billion acts of green” in order to ensure that our planet is around for many more years to come, let us Jews remember the “Counting of the Omer” and the unique mission that is our ultimate goal and purpose – to teach the world through the Torah how to be menschen and lead spiritually fulfilling and meaningful lives.

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