parish of the week

If you’re obsessing over sefirah, consider this: There are more important mitzvot


Did you count sefirah last night? Did you make it up this morning? Are you still counting with a bracha? Do you have an app reminding you to count the Omer? Do you have a WhatsApp group that helps you count?

In the absence of the Temple in Jerusalem, most view the mitzvah to count as a rabbinic commandment, a nod to a different time. And yet people are so very careful to fulfill it. Many mitzvot of the Torah are applicable in our time, no Temple required, and don’t even have a blessing as they can be performed all the time. Why do we not get the same kinds of reminders to fulfill them?

We are good at ritual and at fulfilling the “between man and G-d” commandments. But what about the “between man and man” Torah-obligations?

More than the mistranslation “good deed,” a mitzvah is a commandment, given by a Commander, Who is telling us what we must do.

Often the mitzvah might be considered “for your benefit” (see Devarim 10:13). In what way is it good for us? Some of the goodness comes in refining our character. Some of the goodness comes in enhancing our relationships with others. Some of the goodness comes in our relationship with the Almighty.

Ramban explains in Devarim that mitzvot are not for G-d. The heavens and all the earth bring honor to G-d; He doesn’t need us. He loved the forefathers and chose their descendants to have a mission on earth. The purpose of mitzvot is to help us yearn for G-d more. This is something we ought to think about — how often do we see mitzvot as a means for us to get closer to G-d?

In this week’s double parsha — Acharei Mot and Kedoshim — we have mitzvot to love our fellow Jews, not to hate another Jew, not to embarrass another Jew, not to wrong one another through speech, not to curse any Jew, not to give misleading advice, to judge our fellow Jews favorably, to rebuke a sinner (with kindness and in a manner which will be listened to or accepted), not to take revenge, not to bear a grudge, and not to gossip or make up stories about others.

How many of us bear a grudge against someone else? How often does a grudge develop, often on account of a misunderstanding? How many people carry a grudge and know that the other person is unaware of the grudge? How many people are victims of a grudge, and don’t know because they were never told, nor given the opportunity to explain and put things right?

While there are certainly some commentators who focus on the appearance of the phrase “I am Hashem” or “I am Hashem your G-d,” who sometimes appear to be randomly assigned. But sometimes it seems that added phrase is G-d’s way of saying “this one is REALLY important.”

I’d like to zone in on a mitzvah we would all benefit from being more careful about.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation of 19:32 is “Stand up before a white head [meaning a person with white hair], and give respect to the old. You shall thus fear your G-d. I am G-d.”

The Hebrew word Rabbi Kaplan translated as “whitehead” is “sayvah.” Ibn Ezra translates the word as “zaken,” an elderly person who is close to death. Were we to accept this definition, no person who might otherwise qualify to be stood for would ever want anyone to stand for them.

Rashi defines sayvah as one who has acquired wisdom, without specifying its source, whether from study or life experience. Onkelos says it refers to a Torah scholar. Avot 5:21 defines ziknah as age 60 and sayvah as age 70; this is not a definition based on how one feels (one may feel 70 years old or 70 years young). It’s just a mark of chronological years having passed.

The Talmud Kiddushin seems to follow the view of Isi ben Yehuda that a zaken equals any one who is classified as older — however that is defined by society — but it is not determined by scholarship.

Two friends who are themselves classified as sayvah or zaken should even respect one another in this way! Don’t avoid doing so because it’s hard; do it because it’s a mitzvah!

Beyond illness and injury and death and taxes there are few things more painful than the feeling of being ignored, unimportant, or irrelevant. This mitzvah is meant to avoid that in people who, as time passes, might otherwise feel ignored, unimportant, or irrelevant. As 70 becomes the new 50, and as older people don’t like to be called “old,” these are milestones that might be more difficult to pinpoint today. But let us take note:

There are people who deserve the dignity of being noticed. And being given at the very least human courtesy and respect. Respect doesn’t mean I don’t hurt your feelings. It means I actively stand, I actively acknowledge the person’s humanity through a kind word, through even a simple conversation — if not more, through tapping into that person’s wisdom.

A mitzvah is a commandment which makes us better people. Sometimes it’s between us and G-d. But He doesn’t need the mitzvah! When it becomes something that enhances others’ lives it is a good deed. We should be as careful if not more about reminding ourselves to do these Torah-mandated mitzvot, as we are about sefiras haOmer. And we should become experts in promoting and performing mitzvot between man and man that put other people up. Through this as well, we should merit to bring G-d into our lives.