The Heart of the Matter
You shall count for yourselves -- from the morrow of the rest day, from the day when you bring the omer of the waving -- seven weeks, they shall be complete. Until the morrow of the seventh week you shall count fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to God. (Leviticus 23:15-16)
The custom among Jews is not to celebrate weddings between Passover and Shavuot. The reason: so as not to create an atmosphere of increased joy because the students of Rabbi Akiva died of a plague during this period. There is also the custom not to trim the head or facial hair [as a sign of mourning], but some allow this after Lag B'Omer -- the 33rd day of the Omer -- because they maintain that the plague abated at this time. (Tur, Orach chaim, 493,1)
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students and that they all died in a single period because they did not afford the proper respect to each other. The world was a wasteland until Rabbi Akiva taught our rabbis in the South: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi, Rabbi Shimon [that is, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the author of the Zohar whose memorial day we celebrate on the 33rd day of the Omer] and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. And they reestablished the Torah. We learn that they all died between Passover and Shavuot. (Talmud, Yevomat, 62b)
Is the connection between the deaths of these rabbis for their lack of respect for each other and the first 33 days of the Omer a mere coincidence?
The fact that Israel mourns during the days of the Omer, and the Talmud stresses that the deaths took place between Passover and Shavuot forcefully conveys the impression that we are looking at more than mere coincidence.
Everyone who is called by My name and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have fashioned, even perfected (Isaiah 43:7)
All that the Holy one, Blessed is He, created in His world, He created solely for His glory, as it is said, All that is called by My name, indeed, it is for My glory that I have created it, formed it and made it. (Isaiah 43:7) And it says, God shall reign for all eternity. (Avot 6:11)
This chapter of Avot is known as the "Chapter of Torah Acquisition" as it deals entirely with how to go about amassing Torah knowledge.
The Hebrew word kavod translated as "glory" really means "respect."
The Hebrew word for "glory" used in the above verse is the word kavod. Because the ordinary meaning of the word kovod, "respect," is inadequate to convey the concept behind this verse, the translator selected the word "glory" instead. Unfortunately in the context, this translation makes it appear as if God created the world to show off His power, obviously not the intended message.
To really comprehend what is meant by the fact that God created the universe for His glory, we have to delve deeply into the Jewish concept of kavod.
Let us begin by exploring the association between this concept of kavod and Torah.
This is the matter that you shall do for them to sanctify them to minister to me (Exodus 29:1). This that is written: the wise inherit honor kavod, (Proverbs 3:35). There is no honor other than Torah; and I can prove it to you. If you study the Book of Chronicles you will find that the people are listed as Adam, Seth, Enoch etc. you do not find respect, kavod, associated with any of them until you come to Jabez, as it is written, Jabez was more honorable than his brothers (1 Chronicles 4:9) why is his name associated with honor kavod? Because he tirelessly pursued the study and teaching of Torah.
The wise inherit honor. Similarly we find by Aaron, what does it say? The teaching of truth was in his mouth (Malachi 2:6) what does God say to Moses? You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother, for glory and splendor (Exodus 28:2). All this kavod in the merit of the Torah he tirelessly pursued. (Exodus Raba 38:5)
THE HONOR OF TORAH
How can we relate to the idea that there is no genuine respect or kavod that is not somehow associated with the tireless pursuit of Torah?
Rabbi Hutner finds the beginnings of the answer in Psalm 136 known as "The Great Praise." In this prayer, which we recite on Shabbat morning, we describe God as a being whose kindness endures forever -- no fewer than 26 times. Remarking on this apparently exaggerated repetitive emphasis on God's kindness in a single prayer, the Talmud comments:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: These 26 kindnesses represent the 26 generations that God supported the world through pure kindness, as He had not yet given His Torah. (Talmud, Pesachim, 118a)
This statement would appear to imply that God's kindness was exhausted after these 26 generations, and once the Jews were given the Torah, He stopped feeding the world with kindness.
But Rabbi Hutner explained that the true meaning of the passage is not to describe a reduction of God's kindness, but an alteration of the attribute of God which serves as the foundation of creation. Before the Torah was given, God's relationship to the world could only be understood in terms of pure kindness. After the Torah was given it can be understood in terms of the concept of kavod.
When man lives in the world without any assigned purpose to his life, he is actively assuming that God created the world for him, as an act of pure kindness. All he has to do is to enjoy. Of course, as he lives in God's world, he must observe the minimum rules of civilized conduct expressed by the seven Noahide laws, but there is no notion that he must somehow earn his keep. A world that does not require the pursuit of some quest as a condition of living is a world that is not built on respect but on pure kindness.
If we translate the implications of such a world into a human real life situation, its equivalent would consist of living at someone else's expense, drawing full support without having to give the slightest return. No one has any respect for the person who takes a free ride. But a world without Torah is precisely such a world. The purpose of life is simply to enjoy living. Man has no duties or obligations other than to simply enjoy his life and keep to the Noahide laws that are simply the elementary rules of civilized behavior observed by essentially all human societies.
The world of Torah is a world based on respect.
The world of Torah is also a world that is supplied by God's kindness, but it is a world based on respect. In such a world man must spend his life in laboring to perfect himself. He has to turn himself into a Godlike creature by carefully observing the Torah laws, which are designed to guide him towards behavior appropriate for someone created in God's image. The observance of these laws has nothing to do with enjoying life, and involves much effort and self- sacrifice. What is more, the observance of these laws is the condition for living. The Torah states that if no one observed these laws, the world would cease.
Under the system introduced at Sinai, man must justify his existence. He must merit being given a world. The world continues to exist only because man needs it in order to accomplish his mission and his purpose. God's creation is still an act of kindness, but it is kindness based on respect. Man, the recipient of creation is expected to produce. He lives in a world where there are no free rides. Every man must earn his way. The respect that is a response to effort and achievement is one aspect of kavod.
Another aspect of kavod is associated with uniqueness. For example, the value placed on minerals has to do with their rarity. Gold is an uncommon element in nature, and this makes it treasured and unique. Platinum is rarer than gold, and therefore held in greater esteem. Enriched uranium is rarer still, and therefore has even greater value. Another example is art, especially after the death of the artist, when it is known that the resource is totally exhausted. Rembrandts are very rare indeed, and they are priceless.
In the same way, some human beings are blessed with very rare qualities that render them unique. The great athlete, the great scientist, the fantastic orator, the very beautiful model is a special breed of human being. There are not many like him or her walking around. This rarity, when it is associated with a quality that is regarded as positive, elicits adulation from the rest of mankind. Thus, such gifted people are often showered with attention and money.
But people are more complex than rare minerals or paintings. The value assigned to them does not entirely depend on the objective criterion of scarcity and other factors also enter the equation. In Hebrew the numerical value of the word kavod is 32, the same as the numerical value for the Hebrew word lev, "heart." That is because the kavod that is awarded to people for their uniqueness is dependant on the value placed on the commodity in which they are unique, and this value depends on the human heart.
An excellent yardstick by which to measure social values is to study the distribution of kavod.
For example, if we look at our own society, we find that we lavish adulation and money on sports stars, and entertainers, on powerful politicians or media moguls, while prominent scientists or influential teachers and clergymen often lead lives of underpaid obscurity. The name Babe Ruth has almost instant recognition, while few people have heard of say Alexander Fleming. Yet the former only managed to hit a few more baseballs than other people, while the latter saved the lives of many millions by discovering penicillin.
Babe Ruth, the baseball player, is more famous than Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin.
The lev-kavod equation would suggest that our society places a much greater value on accomplishments in the field of sports and entertainment than it does on the advancement and cultivation of knowledge or morality.
This again leads ultimately to the association of kavod and Torah. In the world of pure kindness preceding the Torah, where the focus of life is on enjoyment, the advancement of knowledge must always take a back seat to the pleasures of entertainment. The person who has a special talent that stimulates the physical senses adds a lot more to the enjoyment of life than the person who writes the boring textbooks full of esoteric knowledge on which the advancement of human knowledge depends.
In a world of Torah, where the focus is necessarily on improvement rather than enjoyment, kavod would necessarily be distributed differently than in our own world. The ultimate kavod is indeed offered by the Torah to the scholar.
But there is yet a third aspect of kavod to explore which will finally allow us to confront the story of Rabbi Akiva's students again.
As we have pointed out kavod among people is a function of uniqueness. If these are thousands of Michael Jordans, there is no honor to be gained by simply being another one. And even in the ideal Torah society that places wisdom on the highest pedestal, when there are 24,000 brilliant Torah scholars it adds little luster to be simply another one.
The jaded lack of respect with which the students of Rabbi Akiva treated each other was simply an indication of the great abundance of superior Torah students. What was so wrong with that?
The Mishna teaches: man was created alone [not by species or even male and female, but a solitary individual] to teach you, that whoever destroys a life is considered by the Torah as though he had destroyed the entire world, and whoever saves a life is considered as though he had saved an entire world (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a)
But how does the lesson follow? When Adam was created he had the significance of uniqueness, but now that there are millions of people populating the world how is it possible to equate each individual with Adam?
THE MEANING OF UNIQUENESS
Rabbi Hutner explains. Each human being is still unique. No two individuals in the history of the world ever had the identical perception of anything. Each has his own mind, character and emotions, and each represents a unique, never to be duplicated consciousness in the cosmos. The great multitude of human beings doubtless obscures this truth, but no amount of numbers can change its validity.
What is the difference between the great athlete, the great politician or the important scientist?
If we look at the uniqueness of human beings once again, we will now discover another difference between the great athlete or politician and the important scientist. The great athlete who runs the mile in the shortest time is no different than the other great athlete who equals his speed. Even if he manages to hold the world record it will only be for a short time, and even then his supremacy amounts to not more than a second or two.
This obviously applies as well to any of the other qualities that we pay tribute to with the single exception of knowledge. Knowledge is a product of man's perception and in this regard each person represents a singularity that will never be repeated.
The period of the days of the Omer, the days between Passover and Shavuot, is a period of anticipation, of counting off the days till we can finally receive the Torah.
The commandment of counting the days is based on the feelings of excited anticipation. This period represents the transition between two worlds:
- The world of the 26 generations, based on pure kindness, dedicated to enjoyment, and
- the world of Torah, based on respect, dedicated to perfection.
It is the transition from the world of enjoyment to the world of kavod.
In this world of kavod, the uniqueness of man is apparent in his capacity for knowledge, and kavod is awarded on the bases of achievement in advancing human knowledge. The most significant area of human knowledge, and therefore the one that calls for the greatest kavod is Torah knowledge. Without this knowledge, God's creation is an act of pure kindness where man is given no duties or responsibilities except to behave in a civilized fashion. The greatest achievers in the area of Torah knowledge were the students of Rabbi Akiva.
When these students took each other for granted just because there were so many of them, it demonstrated their fundamental lack of appreciation and understanding of the entire world of kavod that the Torah comes to introduce. Such lack of appreciation renders the days of anticipation entirely meaningless. If Torah knowledge cannot render each individual scholar worthy of kavod no matter how large a number there may be, than the arrival of the Torah on Shavuot will change nothing.
The 33rd word in the Torah is the Hebrew word tov meaning "good."
The 33rd word in the Torah is the Hebrew word tov meaning "good." It refers to the light that was God's first creation: God saw that the light was good (Genesis 1:4).
The 32 previous words of creation, equaling the numerical value of lev "heart," serve to generate this good light.
God's light to the world is his Torah, which points the way to man's purpose and renders him a creature worthy of respect. Between the 33rd day of the Omer and the fiftieth day, Shavuot -- the day the Torah enters the world -- there are 17 days, equal to the numerical value of the word tov. If we divide the days we count between the first thirty two and the last seventeen, we get lev tov, the "good heart" -- the heart that knows what to value and distributes its kavod, (worth 32) with its entire essence (also 32) to the proper recipient, the Torah scholar.