By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
An old poem reminds us how a seemingly trivial oversight can have truly global consequences:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the loss of a horseshoe nail.
This is especially true in spiritual development. It’s easy for us to look at our successes -- the hours we commit to Torah study, the time we devote to prayer, the money we set aside for charity and for our children’s education. But if we focus exclusively on our accomplishments, we can easily overlook the areas that need improvement. And if we do, we fall under the spell of the most insidious enemy of all: complacency.
Someone once said that the definition of a good Jew is one who is trying to be a better Jew. That is true all year around. But the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuos put a special focus on that message.
The interval between the exodus from Egypt and the revelation of Hashem’s word at Sinai was the most transformative period in Jewish history, when our ancestors pulled themselves up from the abyss of spiritual impurity and attained the pinnacle of Godliness. Originally, sefiras ha-omer -- the annual counting of days and weeks -- was intended to be a joyful reenactment of that process: by freeing ourselves from the slavery of habit and the status quo we strive to make ourselves worthy of receiving Hashem’s word all over again like new creations
By freeing ourselves from the slavery of habit and we strive to make ourselves worthy of receiving Hashem’s word all over again
All that changed in the days of Rabbi Akiva, whose great yeshiva in Yavneh swelled to 24,000 students. Yet their preeminence led to their downfall; each of them grew so confident in his own scholarship that he failed to give proper consideration to other opinions. They grew complacent. By neglecting to seize the opportunity of these days for personal growth, they evoked a heavenly plague and began dying in horrific numbers.
The days of sefiras ha-omer instead became an indictment against them. Even then, they did not take heart. By the time the festival of Shavuos arrived that year, virtually every one of them had died. Because of a small lapse in their spiritual development, an entire generation of Torah giants was lost, and days of joy became days of mourning.
In the coming weeks, let us make the effort to learn from their story and look deep within ourselves for ways we can improve our own divine service.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, is a speaker, writer, and educator in St. Louis, Missouri. Visit him at ProverbsAndProvidence.com.