“For with You is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:10).
There is a custom to sing at the end of the Passover Seder a song called, Chad Gadya – One Goat. According to most commentators, the “goat” represents the People of Israel, and the song is therefore a parable which tells the story of our people’s journey through history until the era of the final redemption. The last stanza of the song opens with the following words:
“The Holy One, Blessed is He, then came and slaughtered the Angel of Death.”
The above words are referring to the age when the Holy One “will eliminate death forever” and “erase tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
As we discussed in this series, the story of our people’s journey represents the human story – a story which began with the Garden of Eden, where human beings had the potential to live forever. Had Adam and Eve continued to fulfill the original mandate “to serve and preserve” the Garden (Genesis 2:15), death would not have come into the world. When, however, they stopped viewing the world as a place for serving and instead began to view the world as a place for selfish gratification, they felt free to eat from the “forbidden fruit”; thus, death entered the world (see Genesis 2:17). The Midrash therefore teaches in the name of Rabbi Akiva:
The Omnipresent One set before the human being two paths - the path of life and the path of death – and the human being chose the latter. (Genesis Rabbah 21:5 – Rashi)
This tragic choice, however, is not the end of the story, for Hashem – the Compassionate One – enables us to regain eternal life through fulfilling the Torah – the Divine Teaching. This is why the Torah is described in the following manner: “She is a tree of life” (Proverbs 3:18).
The idea that the Torah gives us life is expressed in the verse where the Compassionate One proclaims:
“Keep My statutes and My social laws, which a human being shall do and live thereby – I am Hashem.” (Leviticus 18:5)
“Live thereby” – The classical commentator, Rashi, explain that these words are referring to the eternal life of the World to Come. As we hope to discuss in the next letter of this series, the term “World to Come” can refer to the blissful life of the soul after death, and it can also refer to the final stage of human history on earth, following the resurrection of the dead. In this age, the soul will be reunited with the body.
A midrashic work known as “Toras Kohanim” points out that the above verse does not state, “which an Israelite shall do and live thereby”; instead, it states, “which a human being shall do and live thereby.” The emphasis on a “human being” serves as a reminder that the Torah which was given to Israel also has a universal moral code for all humanity. As Maimonides explains, a non-Jew who properly fulfills the precepts of this code through following the Torah is one of the chassidei umos ha'olam – those among the nations who serve Hashem with love; moreover, Maimonides cites the ancient teaching that chassidei umos ha'olam will merit a share in the World to Come. (Mishneh Torah - The Laws of Kings 8:11)
The phrase “live thereby” therefore includes chassidei umos ha'olam, and they too will merit eternal life in the World to Come. In this spirit, our tradition teaches: “The words of Torah are life for all human beings” (Tana Dvei Eliyahu 18:74).
The above teachings can help us to understand that our journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai – the place where we received the Torah – was a journey to a “tree of life”! This may be a reason why there is a mitzvah to count the days and weeks between Passover and Shavuos, the Festival which celebrates the gift of the life-giving Torah (Leviticus 23:15). There is a classical work on the Torah’s mitzvos known as “Sefer Ha-Chinuch,” and it offers the following explanation of this mitzvah:
“We are commanded to count the days from the morrow of the first day of Passover until the day when the Torah was given, to demonstrate our great desire towards this exalted day for which our hearts yearn” (Mitzvah 306).
We are to demonstrate our desire for the exalted day when we received the Divine Teaching which enables us to regain eternal life.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
1. We express our yearning for eternal life in the opening words of a special kaddish prayer:
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified in the world which will be renewed, and where He will resurrect the dead and raise them up to eternal life, and rebuild the city of Jerusalem and complete the Temple within it.
This special prayer is chanted at the burial – a reminder that life is eternal. And it is also chanted when a tractate of the Talmud is completed – a reminder that the study and fulfillment of Torah leads to eternal life.
2. The mitzvah of counting the days of our journey to Mount Sinai is known as Sefiras Ha-Omer - the Counting of the Omer. For further study of this mitzvah and its deeper significance, visit: www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/omer/ . At this site you can also register for a daily e-mail reminder on the counting of the Omer which also provides a transliteration and translation of the traditional Hebrew blessing and recitation. (If you forgot to count any of the days, you count the rest of the days, but without the preliminary blessing.)