Torah

We must always make every moment count

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It was our first masah, our first forced march. We were barely two weeks in the army and Itzik, a sadistic little first sergeant who had made it his mission to break us into soldiers, owned us for the night. 

We were based in a miserable little hole not far from the Mediterranean — which meant there were lots of sand dunes for them to run us through. We soon discovered that running in sand dunes is an exercise in futility. For every two steps forward you end up taking one step back, and the weight of the sand pulling against every foot is an ever-growing agony.

In addition to our regular gear, I was carrying a 20-liter jerry can on my back, and this dead weight added to the pain. I still remember the misery on my closest buddy Pinny’s face, when we reached the top of that dune, with the illusion that we had somehow made it, and there, stretched out before us as far as the eye could see, was an endless sea of sand dunes just waiting for that sadistic drill sergeant to march us through.

Hours later, we came full circle and could see the main base gate ahead of us. As we drew closer, our first march seemingly under our belts, we actually began to sing! And just as we were feet away from entering the base, tents and showers almost within our grasp, Itzik screamed out two terrible words that I will remember forever: “Yeminah. P’nei!” “Right. Turn!”

We turned along the outside of the base, exactly where we had started our ordeal hours earlier, and proceeded to do the entire thing all over again.

I don’t recall a single experience in my entire army career that came close to matching the utter despair of that moment, as we realized we had no idea where we were going, how long it would be till we got there, and the depressing fact that Sergeant Itzik, the sadist, could play with us as long as he liked.

Often in life, it seems like we are just running up and down sand dunes, and we find ourselves wondering: Where are we going, and how did we end up in this seemingly pointless, endless journey?

We try to set goals for ourselves, and then seem to lose track of how to get where we thought we were headed, wondering what our goals really are, why we bother setting them, and whether the ones we have are really so worthwhile after all?

Does Judaism offer a recipe for how to keep life on track?

• • •

Consider the Jewish ritual we are now in the midst of, the counting of the Omer. Beginning with the second night of Passover, we count the days leading up to the festival of Shavuot, which commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Every evening for seven weeks, we recite the blessing thanking G-d for the mitzvah of the counting of the Omer, and proceed to count. The Omer was actually a sacrifice of barley (it was the beginning of the harvest of the grain) offered up in the Temple on the second day of Passover. In fact, the source for this mitzvah appears in this week’s parsha, Emor:

“And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after Shabbat, from the day you bring the waved Omer offering, seven complete weeks.” (Leviticus 23:15)

The mitzvah of the Omer is all about counting; we are counting days and weeks, but we are really counting time.

What does it mean to count a day? We live in an age where the smart phones and post-it notes have turned our days into a list of ‘to do’s. We think a day is a project list, but, in truth, we have lost sight of what a day is really meant to be.

There is an expression that has found its way into our lexicon today: “Time is money.” Is this really what a day is? Judaism suggests that nothing could be further from the truth. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that time is life. A day is a piece of life, but do we really see this? When we fall into bed at the end of another long day, do we really feel we have lived a piece of life, or have life’s endless trivialities and mundane details actually prevented us from really living?

We long for purpose and meaning, yet life somehow seems to get in the way of living! How do we get over all the sand dunes, without getting so caught up in the hill above us and the weight on our backs, that we completely lose sight of where we are headed and how to get there?

A beautiful mishnah in Pirkei Avot says that if a person, in the midst of learning Torah, happens across a beautiful tree and interrupts study to exclaim “How beautiful is this tree,”  “his life is forfeit.”

In other words, allegorically, for interrupting his Torah study to admire a tree, he has lost the right to live! What is wrong with admiring the beauty of nature, even in the midst of Torah study? After all, isn’t such a person admiring the beauty that G-d created the world?

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests if seeing a beautiful tree is an interruption of a person’s Torah study, then he is missing the entire point. The beauty of nature is not an interruption of my relationship with G-d; it is an integral part of it. 

Changing our children’s diapers, doing the laundry, and cooking dinner are not chores that prevent me from living; they are gifts which are an essential part of the beauty of life.

And this is the secret of the Omer.

The Omer is an offering of barley, the coarsest of grains. Raw barley is actually animal fodder, and it is symbolic of all the seemingly mundane parts of daily living, which seem, at first glance, to be a distraction from the joy of life. The challenge of the Omer, is to learn how to see all of my ‘barley,’ all the chores and details which seem so insignificant, as much a part of the meaning of life as the mountain views we love to escape to.

Perhaps this is why we count the Omer immediately after the Exodus from Egypt, on Passover. The question, now that we were given the gift of time, was what we were going to do with it. Freedom was not the goal, it was a challenge, and the festival of Pesach represents that challenge. It was not the end of the journey; it was, rather, a beginning.

Hence, the day after the start of Pesach, we begin counting the Omer. As if to say, in the midst of the headiness that must have accompanied the incredible events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt, understand that life is not just the splitting of the Red Sea. It is also all the seemingly insignificant details represented by the barley, the animal fodder the Jews had to feed their cattle every day, even in the midst of the Exodus from Egypt.

May Hashem bless us that soon, all of us, as a people and as a world, may merit to see beauty in all that we do, and in everyone we are with. Make every moment count.