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If We Would Only Listen for the Voice...

In the Talmud in Sanhedrin, there is a story of a rabbi named Yehoshua ben Levi who lived in the Land of Israel 2,000 years ago. He went to Meron in the Gallilee, to a cave where the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was buried and had spent 13 years of his life a generation before. In that cave, bar Yochai purportedly delved into deep and esoteric mysteries of God and creation. And so Yehoshua ben Levi went to that very cave years later to find his own deep insights to the ultimate question: he wanted to know when the Messiah would finally come to redeem the Jewish people and the whole world. The story goes that when Yehoshua ben Levi got the cave, he encountered none other than Elijah the Prophet himself. Now, we all know that that Elijah is the one who will herald the coming of the Messiah. So Yehoshua ben Levi asked Elijah to please tell him when the Messiah would come. Elijah said to him: why don’t you go ask him yourself! Where is he, Yehoshua ben Levi asked? He sits among the Lepers outside the gate of Rome, Elijah replied. Time and space rarely pose a problem in the midrashic stories, so suddenly, Yehoshua ben Levi is whisked to the gate of Rome. He very quickly spots the Messiah, who is disguised as a leper, but ben Levi sees through the disguise. Greetings to you, Messiah, said Yehoshua ben Levi. Greetings to you rabbi, said the Messiah. When will you come, ask Yehoshua ben Levi? Hayom! Today! Replied the Messiah. And so, joyfully, Yehoshua ben Levi goes back to the land of Israel, ready for the Messiah to come. But of course, ‘today’ comes and goes, and the Jewish people are not redeemed. Angrily, Yehoshua ben Levi goes back to the cave in Meron and finds Elijah. The Messiah lied, said Yehoshua ben Levi. Why, what did he say, asked Elijah. He said he would come Hayom, today, and he did not! Ah, replied Elijah, he did not lie at all. Elijah explained: the Messiah will come, as it says in Psalm 95, Hayom, today, Im b’kolo tishm’u: today, if you would only listen for his voice.

Tonight, we begin an auspicious date on the Jewish calendar: Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer. Tonight, thousands of Jews will convene at that same cave in Meron in the Gallilee, and light bonfires in honor of the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who achieved esoteric knowledge there, and insights on how and when the Messiah will come. In the ancient days of those rabbis, Israel was devastated by wars and struggles against the might of the Roman Empire. Some sources also talk of a great plague that devastated Israel, wiping out 24,000 students of Torah, but on Lag B’Omer, the plague lifted, and so Lag B’Omer is a celebration of respite in the midst of dark times, a glimmer of hope in a world of suffering that longs for redemption.

If there was ever a people in the world who had a reason to doubt the goodness of life, the reasons to hope, it would be the Jews. How many centuries of wars, plagues, the destruction of the Temples, exiles, persecutions, Crusades, pogroms, the Holocaust, and terrorism—how many memories and traumas do we collectively share that should overwhelm us and turn us to bitterness? But what is amazing about the Jewish people is that none of our suffering has managed to break our collective spirit: we still continue to yearn and hope, and to affirm simkhat chayim, the joy of life despite it all. We are all collectively like that Messiah at the gate of Rome seated among the lepers, the suffering of the world and life all around us, and yet always ready for redemption Hayom, today – Im b’kolo tishm’u: if only we and the whole world could hear that subtle voice of God calling us to that redemption each and every day.

This whole time of year is known as Sfirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the Omer. Each day between Passover and Shavuot, we count the day, 49 days in all. Each day we count using the same word the Messiah used: Hayom: Today: Hayom yom echad La’Omer, Today is the first day of the Omer, the 2nd day, Hayom shloshim yamim La’Omer, the 32nd day in the counting of the Omer. Hayom, over and over we repeat that word. Our sages teach us that counting, saying Hayom each day, links up the redemption that we tasted on Passover to our ability to receive the wisdom of Torah, which we will celebrate on Shavuot. For thousands of years, our people have known that Torah contains the answers to everything: how do we bring about justice and end all the suffering and violence of this world: hafoch bah v’hafoch bah, as ben Bag Bag taught in the Mishnah: keep turning the Torah again and again, look deeper and deeper into the Torah, ki hakol yesh bah: because the answers to all our burning questions are somewhere in Torah. And at this time of year, the Omer, Lag B’Omer, we also remember the words of the Messiah himself: that the greatest Torah of all comes when we know how to listen, to pay attention to Hayom, to this day, each day, and the lessons of Torah that life itself teaches each of us.

When we learn to count each day of life as the great blessing that it is, we learn that everything we need is already here! Redemption itself is ready to come Hayom, even today! There is great Torah awaiting us in our own life experiences that we can receive when we number our days. We’re counting as a way, as Psalm 90 says, to lilmnot yameinu, to number our days: to pay attention to the present moment v’navi lev chochmah: and bring about a heart of wisdom, of Torah. As each day passes, no matter what’s happening in it, good, bad, pleasure, suffering: each day counts, each day IS Torah itself. Torah is found everywhere, in everything, in every experience of life.

The great Hassidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger taught this: he said,“she’tzarich ish Yisrael leha’amin shehakol Torah; Everyone of Israel must believe that Everything is Torah: vkoach ha’asarah ma’amarot shehem b’toch hatevah g’nuzim.”and the power of the 10 commandments can be found hidden in nature itself!

The Sfat Emet, goes on to explain: precious metals like silver can be found in the soil, and must be beaten out with great effort until you have refined silver: but the fact remains, even in the filthy soil, the purest silver can be found! This is the Messiah among the lepers, the real Torah of life.

If we survive a difficult life experience, we can learn the Torah of our own inner strength to survive difficulties, the Torah of human resilience; when we suffer an injustice, we can learn the Torah of pursuing Justice at all costs; when we suffer the loss of a loved one, we can learn the Torah of cherishing the life of our surviving loved ones while we have them, as well as learning how to be compassionate to others who suffer loss. When a time comes when we must ask for help from others in the community, we learn how important it is to be a part of a community that we can all count on.

There are many great teachers of Torah all around us, many who can listen for God’s voice in their own life experiences Hayom, today. There is Shmuel Greenbaum, whose pregnant wife was killed in the infamous suicide bomber attack on the Sbarro’s pizza restaurant in 2001 in Jerusalem. Instead retreating into bitterness, Shmuel decided to create a new organization called a Tradition of Kindness that seeks to respond to all tragedy and violence in the world by promoting acts of Chesed, or lovingkindness of people reaching out to people. He’s bringing Torah into action Hayom, today: and creating a world that doesn’t meet violence with more violence, but that meets violence with deeper love and compassion.

There is Jill and Craig Levine, a Long Island couple whose son Robbie mysteriously collapsed and died playing little league baseball. In one shocking moment of running for a homerun, little Robbie had heart failure and his life suddenly ended. After months of grief and agony, Jill and Craig came to understand strength and compassion Hayom, today, and now organize yearly 5K runs, and have already raised more than 35,000 dollars to ensure that there are defibrillators in every little league field in their area.

There is Ismail Khatib, a Palestinian man whose own son was shot and killed by an Israeli soldier, but who decided to donate his son’s organs to save the lives of three Israelis who were desperately in need of organ transplants. Mr. Khatib, of course, is not Jewish. But he learned this Torah of kindness b/c another one of his own sons was once in desperate need of a liver transplant, and he learned how our ability to help one another Hayom, today, transcends religious, ethnic, and political boundaries.

Each and every day, Hayom, today, we all can learn such lessons of Torah, when we number our days. The Torah says that when we Count the Omer, we recall how we brought the the ancient grain offerings to Jerusalem, v’heveitem et Omer Reishit k’tzirchem,” bring an Omer-measure of your first harvesting” the book of Exodus says. The expression Reishit K’zirchem means the very first fruits, the first of the summer harvest.

The rabbis of the Midrash explain that the Hebrew word “reishit” or “first,” also means Torah. Each day of the Omer, we count Hayom. Each day we bring the Reishit, we find Torah as we count. For us, Torah is not just the text of the Torah. Torah is the continuing revelation of truth that transforms our daily experiences into wisdom, compassion, and justice.

With each passing day of our lives, when we live with hearts open fully to whatever arises, then life itself will be reishit kzirchem, will be the Wisdom of Torah for each of us to harvest.

The Mashiach really is ready to come Hayom! All of the strength, insight, and wisdom that we need to transform not only our lives, but the whole world is right here, right now Hayom im b’kolo Tishm’u, Today, if we but learn to listen to the Voice of God teaching us Torah through our own life experiences.


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