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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Witnessing the Wonder

Dear Friend of Israel,
My Christians friends often ask me why Jewish holidays fall on different days of the year, or why observance of the Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown. The answer is that the Jewish calendar is based on lunar cycles, while the Gregorian calendar (the calendar in common use throughout the world) is based on the sun. Thus, Jewish calendar days begin at sundown and run to the next sundown, based on the biblical account of God’s creation of the earth: “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day” (Genesis 1:5).
The Jewish calendar is also geared toward religious observance; its numerous holidays and festivals, both major and minor, give unique meaning to the Jewish year. We are in the midst right now of one of those minor observances. The Counting of the Omer, based on a biblical mandate in Leviticus 23, is a seven-week period extending from the second night of Passover until the night before the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost). (An omer was a unit of measure in biblical times – on the second night of Passover, an omer of barley was brought to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem). Jews count these days to remind themselves that the physical liberation remembered on Passover was not complete until we received spiritual liberation through the gift of God’s word, an event remembered on Shavuot.
The Counting of the Omer is also a period of partial mourning – strange, considering that it occurs between two of the most joyous events in the history of the Jewish people. Why? Jewish oral tradition tells us that during the Roman domination of Israel, a plague killed thousands of students of a great Jewish teacher, Rabbi Akiva. This occurred because the students did not show respect for one another or their fellow man. This teaches us the importance not just of honoring God by observing His law, but also of honoring Him by showing our love and respect for each other.
Thus, during the Counting of the Omer, we mourn in remembrance of a tragedy. But on one day, known as Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of this seven-week period (which begins this year at sundown on Saturday, April 27), sadness gives way to celebration as we recall the day on which this plague was lifted.
This is but one example of how the Jewish calendar turns our minds back to pivotal events, both tragic and joyous, in the life of the Jewish people. But ultimately, these observances bring our minds back to God. They give us a chance to pause to worship and reflect on how He has extended His blessings to us in the past, and to remind us that He is still at work in the present.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish theologians of the 20th century, once summed up the necessity for giving thanks to God in all things: "How strange we are in the world, and how presumptuous our doings! Only one response can maintain us: gratefulness for witnessing the wonder, for the gift of our unearned right to serve, to adore, and to fulfill. It is gratefulness which makes the soul great." Today, whether you are Jewish or Christian, I hope that you will take a moment to reflect on how God is at work in your life, and to offer Him thanks, even as I thank you today for the great blessing of your support for Israel and the Jewish people.
With prayers for shalom, peace,

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President

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