About six months ago, Ray Allen, former NBA All-Star, wrote a piece in the Player’s Tribune that was a letter to his younger self. In the letter, he described his day to day routines and habits and that he would have to choose daily to work hard and dedicate himself to becoming great at his craft. Allen writes, “but if I’m being real with you, what you’ll realize after you win the first title is that the thrill is fleeting. The vindication is fleeting. If you only chase that high, you’re going to end up very depressed. The championships are almost secondary to the feeling you’ll get from waking up every morning and putting in the work. The championships are like when you were sitting in class at UConn with your shirt and tie on. They’re just the culmination...I really mean it from the bottom of my heart: Life is about the journey, not the destination. And that journey will change you as a person.”
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Emor, we are given the mitzvah of the Omer/עומר. The verse reads, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest/דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי-תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם, וּקְצַרְתֶּם אֶת קְצִירָהּ וַהֲבֵאתֶם אֶת עֹמֶר רֵאשִׁית קְצִירְכֶם אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן (Lev. 23:10).” The Midrash (Lev. Rab. 28:1) brings a verse from Ecclesiastes to raise a point. “What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun/מַה יִּתְרוֹן לָאָדָם בְּכָל עֲמָלוֹ שֶׁיַּעֲמֹל תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ?” The Midrash is asking about the purpose of mundane work and the work that is so connected to this world. What is the point? Rabbi Binyamin ben Levi said that in fact, people sought to ban the book of Ecclesiastes since it could lead to heresy. If there is no point to anything, why engage in our tradition at all?!? The Midrash fixes this and goes on to explain that when one toils in the meaningless, that it has no use, but, when one toils in Torah, then there is a profit to the hard work. But what does this look like?
The Sfas Emes* teaches (Parshat Emor 5656) one can only find hidden wisdom through the power of Torah as the Torah opens by teahing “Breishit Bara/בראשית ברא.” Torah is called Reishit/ראשית.** Through engaging and toiling in Torah, one can see that everything in nature is essentially Torah. It is our job as Jews to believe that Torah is hidden everywhere. Just like silver is found in the earth, one just needs to find it, clean and fashion it. That is our role. We are challenged to look everywhere to free and redeem the seemingly mundane so that everyone can see its divinity. A table is more than a table if you look at it the right way. It can bring people together. It can serve a Shabbos meal. Our day to day lives, seen through the right prism, have tremendous meaning.
Every year we need to rededicate ourselves to this orientation. That is why we start counting the Omer the day after Passover/Pesah. Pesah is supposed to be an intense and life altering moment of redemption. And I think for many of us, it is easy to feel that at the Seder. But what happens the next morning? Are we changed? The counting of the Omer ensures that we, every day for forty-nine days, look to lift up the world around us so that all can see that it is essentially Torah. Every day, we lift up a little bit, adding pieces to the puzzle until we arrive at Shavuot, where we receive the entirety of Torah at Sinai.
Later in Allen’s article, he tells a story about how the morning after the Game 7 victory where he and the Miami Heat won a championship, he got up early and started working on his daily routine. “This is what success looks like for you. You’re the kind of guy who goes to the dentist the morning after winning an NBA title.” Pesah is a fleeting moment. Let us embrace the mission of the Omer. Let us take these next days to look at everything around us and see the potential Torah in it. Let us choose to continue this journey towards Torah together and may we be blessed with Torah every step along the way.
*Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
**This is a common Hasidic teaching, that the verse should be translated not as “In the beginning,” but rather, “With Reishit (i.e Torah) the world was created.”
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.