Achrei Mot: Celebrating Life

This is a busy week on the Jewish calendar. Tonight we begin celebrating the seventh day of Pesach, marking kri’yat yam suf (the splitting of the sea). In addition, the mitzvah of sefirat ha-omer, the counting of days between Pesach and Shavuot has begun. In Israel, we also go immediately into reading parshat Acharei Mot this Shabbat. These three events share a common theme related to celebrating life. 

According to the midrash, the people of Israel were still fleeing the Egyptians for seven days after the Exodus until God split the sea and the people were finally free. The Talmud teaches that this was the origin of Hallel, recited by Israel and Moshe as they ascended from the sea. There was no hesitation, only immediate expression of joyous gratitude to God for their lives being saved. There is a similar sentiment expressed in the Sforno’s interpretation of the mitzvah of sefirat ha-omer. In the Torah, the omer count is related to agriculture. It begins with the barley harvest and ends with the wheat harvest. The success of these harvests were a matter of life and death in the ancient world. Sforno comments that the sefira each day is like a tefilla, an expression of gratitude to God for the harvest which sustained life, which mustn’t be taken for granted. Similarly, parshat Achrei Mot contains the mitzvah “וחי בהם.” The commandments were given “to live by them – and not to die by them.” The Talmud teaches that the value of life overrides most of the mitzvot in the Torah. 

All three of these sources highlight the high value that the Torah places on human life and on gratitude and celebration as a way to strengthen life. During these turbulent times, in Israel and the world, these mitzvot and special days are a reminder to pray for safety and wellbeing and to celebrate life. Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson

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