The typical Baal Teshuva is driven by a burning search for meaning. This often finds satisfaction within the plethora of thrilling spiritual experiences to be discovered within Torah life. But what happens when such a BT encounters one of those supremely thrilless rituals like Omer Counting?
Granted, in some communities there are spiritually gifted individuals who serve as models for infusing this Mitzvah with great fervor. Nevertheless, its technically monotonous nature takes its toll when, at least after the first weeks pass, some may find themselves mumbling the words with as much excitement as those who are “thrilled” to be done with it already!
So is there any way around this BT nemesis? The following is one perspective, relevant to every Jew, culled from the profoundly sober teachings of Nesivos Shalom.
“Just like the four cosmic worlds can be spoken of in terms of Asiya (Deed), Yetzira (Spirit), Briah (Mind) and Atsilus (Soul), so too there are four types of piety; each one a world unto its own.
“There is a class of pietists who are people of deed… They are scrupulous in physical and material matters, never indulging their appetite nor material pleasures, even when permissible.
“… Higher than this is the Service of spirit… No materialism has sway here, whatsoever. (Such a person) need not devote to overcoming appetites and materialism, but rather (invests in) a purely refined, unblemished Service (i.e. prayer).
“… Next is the world of mind… where no evil exists, whatsoever. It is a supremely spiritual world. (Such a Jew) elevates and devotes himself to lofty conceptions and emotions pertaining to Divine Service, until his very heart and flesh rejoice in the Living G-d.
“(Yet) even higher is the world of Soul, wherein not the slightest trace of materialism exists… (This can be explained) through the words of the Mishna [Shab. 66: B; Mishna 6: 9]: “Sons go out with connections; royalty go out with bells.”
~ N. Sh. I, Chossidus, 2 ~
An historical interjection: When parents used to take their children outside, they would tie their shoelaces to their own to ensure they wouldn’t get lost [Bartinura]. Thus, the question arises: Is this a form of carrying and thus prohibited on Shabbos? The Mishna rules that while dragging something along by your shoelace is technically carrying, in this case it’s permitted since parents and children share an inherent “connection.” So too do the bells worn by royalty express something intrinsic to their status and thus are not considered as being carried.
In jumps the Mezritcher Maggid (1710-1772). His spiritually penetrating interpretation of this Mishna sheds light on the nature of going “outside” the world of orthodox religious convention, explains the Nesivos. While this is generally a grave problem, there are two exceptions: Those who “royally” serve H’ and those who do so as “sons.” According to the Maggid, the former are totally immersed in the world of Briah/Mind. These are the Talmidei Chachamim who can rely upon the “bells” of Torah learning ringing in their heads to shield them from the onslaught of impure, worldly attractions. They are capable of engaging the non-Orthodox without being influenced by them. The “sons”, the Maggid teaches, function on an even higher level, called Atsilus,which we roughly translated as soul but literally means nearness or communion. This virtually divine sphere is reserved for those rare individuals who feel naturally at one with their Creator, far beyond their specific Torah knowledge. Like a young child feels about his parent, this Jew feels totally “connected” to H’.
To be sure, we see examples of this connection within those classic chassidic stories about little shepherd boys, or some other innocently uneducated Jews, who at one time or another are overwhelmed by their love for their Creator. The conclusion is always the same. They have NOTHING to give Him other than some seemingly very insignificant little thing, like a recital of the alphabet, a whistle or a song, which they proceed to offer with total devotion… until one of the local tsaddikim hear a heavenly voice declaring that this “little” prayer saved the entire community! Which brings us back to S’firas Ha’Omer. It is one of those seemingly insignificant little things, explains the Nesivos [vol. II Omer, 6], that can change the world or, more accurately, worldS. As per the custom to say at the conclusion of each counting, as printed in many siddurim: “…and through this (Mitzvah), may there flow an abundance (of Divine input) into all the worlds.” Accordingly, the Midrash teaches [VaYikra Rabba 28]: “One should never take the Mitzvah of Omer lightly, since it was through the merit of Omer-counting that our father Avraham inherited the Holy Land.” But could that really be? Simply by counting “today is x days in the Omer” the celestial U.N. would decree that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jews – for eternity!?
Indeed, concludes the Nesivos, it is PRECISELY because of the utter thrillessness of this Mitzvah that the first patriarch was able to serve his Maker with the purest, childlike devotion.
To be sure, this total purity of intention is the necessary component for inheriting the Land. As the Nesivos taught last week (Avos 4:4) about the connection between being meod meod shafel ruach, “very, very low spirited,” and the Land being called tova meod meod, “very, very good.” One is directly dependent upon the other. A thoroughly humble Jew will pine to come to Israel and vice versa.
Perhaps this also alludes to the aforementioned four levels of piety: There’s the arrogant deed doer, the humble spiritualist, the very humble learner and the thoroughly humble child. I.e. while doing godly acts is a tremendously important step in the process of Divine Service, if one stops there he has not only neglected to reign in his spiritual life but is taking pride in it! The serious Jew will accordingly give priority to prayer, which inherently involves the cultivation of humility. Yet, here too, the trial of pride digs in its claws. Meod, Meod! The Divine conscience will not give us peace within even the most heartfelt prayers until we emerge with renewed dedication to serving our Maker within two more dimensions: mind and soul.
A tall order? Certainly for the average BT who may find it difficult to maintain a steady and concentrated Torah learning regimen. To such a person it may even be a cruel slap in the face to imply he’s destined to wallow in the world of pride!
Ah – that’s why we’re given Sfiras HaOmer. It’s THE Mitzvah for BTs! Finally, we too can reach the peak of religious purity. Perhaps we can even lead the pack. For all we have to do is draw on that basic belief that got us into this business in the first place:
The belief in being “sons with connections.”