Friday, 19 May, 2017 - 3:33 pm

There are two kinds of people: Those who can count, and those who can’t.

There is something strange about the way we count Sefirah—the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.

What is this counting all about? What is the point of counting days and weeks that will pass, regardless of our counting? The truth is, we are counting from the day we were set free from decades of slavery, on Passover, to the day we received the Torah at Sinai and made our covenant with G-d to accept His Torah as our eternal mandate and blueprint; from the day we became a people to the day we received our Jewish identity. We include both days andweeks in our Sefirah count to highlight the two ways of defining our Jewish identity.

The 24-hour day cycle is a natural result of sunrise and sunset. Nature gives us the day. A seven-day week, on the other hand, is not a result of any natural system. Why does a week have seven days and not six, eight, or ten? Nothing astronomical occurs at the end of seven days to justify it as a time marker. Historians still grapple with this question: Why take a break after every seven days?

The two fairly recent attempts to change the week, into ten days—the 1793-1806 French Revolution calendar—or into five-six days— the Soviet calendar from 1929 till 1940—lasted for just over a decade. However, Judaism’s perspective is clear: From the time of Adam and Eve, the seven-day week was enshrined into human life. “Six days you shall labor and on the seventh day is Shabbat,” Moses told the ancient Hebrews. It was the seven days of creation culminating with the Shabbat that created the notion of a seven-day cycle into the way we mark time.

Now, there are “Week-Jews” and there are “Day-Jews.”

A “Week-Jew” is a Jew who sees himself, his people and Judaism as orbiting within a Divine cycle of time. For this Jew, Jewish identity is defined exclusively by the “week”—a Divine plan. In his or her perception, the DNA of our existence is our relationship with G-d and His blueprint for the world. This Jew’s oxygen is Torah and Mitzvot, the means of our relationship to G-d.

The “Day-Jew,” on the other hand, sees Jewish identity in natural terms—we are a nation like other nations, subjected to the ordinary laws and patterns of nature. Nations rise and fall like sunrise and sunset. The Jewish nation, they concede, has demonstrated unique survival skills, but that is because of various historical and cultural factors. In essence, though, they will argue, we are part of the natural family of nations.

This argument fragmented the Jewish world. In some ways, this was the key difference between pre- and post- 1948, when the State of Israel was created.

Every other nation, ancient and modern, arose due to historical contingencies. A group of people lived in a land, developed a shared culture, formed a society, and thus become a nation. Jews, certainly from the Babylonian exile onward, had none of the conventional attributes of a nation. They did not live in the same land; some lived in Israel, some in Babylon, some in Egypt, and later they scattered throughout the world. They did not share a language of everyday speech; Rashi spoke French, and Maimonides spoke Arabic. There were many Jewish vernaculars, versions of Yiddish, Ladino and other regional Jewish dialects. They did not live under the same political dispensation, nor did they share the same cultural environment. They did not experience the same fates. When the Jews of Spain were enjoying their golden age, those in northern Europe were being massacred in the Crusades. When the Jews of Spain were being persecuted and expelled, the Jews of Poland were enjoying a rare summer of tolerance. Yet they saw themselves, and were seen by others, as one nation: the world’s first, and for long the world’s only, global people.

What, then, made them a nation? This was the question Rabbi Saadia Gaon asked in the tenth century, to which he gave the famous answer: “Our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah.” They were the people defined by the Torah, a nation under the sovereignty of G-d. Having uniquely received their laws before even entering their land, they remained bound by those laws even when they lost their land. Of no other nation has this ever been true.

Our nation was united by a covenant, a faith, a heritage, a commitment, a Torah. The ordinary definition of a nation, members of one nationality, did not apply to us. We were a nation without a nationality, a family without a home, a culture without a language.

In 1948, it became easier to ignore this ancient truth. After the creation of Israel, many began to think of Jews as just one more nation among nations, a country among countries, a language among languages, a culture among cultures, another member of the United Nations.

Hence, 3,000 years ago, the Torah instructed us that when we define our identity, when we count the days from when we became a people to when we found our identity, we must count not only the days but also the weeks. Yes, we live in the natural world. We have, thank G-d, our homeland, our army, our language, our scientific and technological inventions. We count the “days.” But at our core we remain “Week-Jews.” Our ultimate definition is that we are “Am Hashem,” G-d’s people, chosen by Him to be the ambassadors of holiness to the world. The day is part of the week; the week is not part of the day.

Some time ago, Rabbi Grossman, a rabbi in Israel, was visited by Mr. Dotan, head of the Lower Galilee Regional Council. Dotan told him that he had just returned from Germany where he had attended a ceremony in honor of the 25th anniversary of the twin cities pact between the regional council and the Hanover district in Germany.

After the ceremony, German Bundestag (Parliament) member, Detlev Herzig, of the SPD party, approached him and related this story.

His father had passed on a few weeks earlier. Before his demise, he confessed to his part in the Holocaust. He explained that since there are many Holocaust deniers today, he wanted to share the truth with his son.

He told his son that he had been an officer in the German air force, the Luftwaffe, during World War II, and handed him an envelope. Upon opening the envelope, the astonished son found a Wehrmacht Army Officer’s Certificate, wrapped in a strange wallet made of parchment.

His father explained that while destroying a synagogue with his Nazi comrades during the war, he encountered on the floor a scroll made of high quality parchment. The Nazi officer cut out a piece of the scroll to use as a wallet, in which he placed his celebrated officer’s certificate.

Later he discovered that the scroll of parchment was something very sacred to the Jews, it was their Torah scroll. He told his son to give over the evidence to the first Jew he would meet and ask him to deliver it to a holy Jew in Israel who would know how to use it properly.

Upon returning to Israel, Dotan decided that the one who best fit the description was Rabbi Grossman. The rabbi took the wallet the Nazi officer had fashioned for himself out of the parchment of a Sefer Torah, a Torah scroll. Trembling and gripped with emotion, Rabbi Grossman observed that the Nazi had cut out a piece of the Torah from the book of Deuteronomy.

The Rabbi began to read the words inscribed in ink. They were the terrifying words of the chapter of Rebuke in Deuteronomy, in which the Torah warns of terrible consequences if the Jews would abandon their covenant with G-d, if they would reject their Torah.

Then the Torah continued, right there on that wallet: You are all standing today before G-d….

Rabbi Grossman remembered what the great biblical commentator Rashi explains, that after hearing the horrifying words of rebuke the Jews were terrified they would not survive. Moses comforted them and said: You are all standing today before G-d. Just as G-d cannot die, you too will never die.

These were the words inscribed on the wallet.

The rabbi kissed the holy parchment, quoting the Divine promise that we will never perish.

This, my dear friends, is the story of our people—we never only count days; we also count weeks. We have an ancient “parchment,” and it is our ticket to survival and eternity. Today I ask you to undo what that Nazi killer did: Take the parchment of the Torah, and hand it to your child as his or her eternal heritage, as his or her personal gift from G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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