No, this is not a leftover Purim shpiel. We are about to celebrate Pesah, zman heruteinu, the season of our freedom. Those of us who daven Nusakh Sefarad will recite Hallel tonight and tomorrow night. I never heard a good explanation of why we say Hallel at night specifically on Pesah, and certainly why Nusakh Sefarad says it and Nusakh Ashkenaz not. So let me venture an explanation at least of the first question. The miracle of Pesah occurred at night. "And it came to pass at midnight, that Hashem struck every firstborn in Egypt. . . ." Rashi comments that Moshe told Pharaoh that the plague would strike about midnight, so that if the Egyptian astronomers erred in the calculation of midnight they would not be able to claim that the plague did not happen as Moshe said it would and therefore it was not Hashem's doing. But the plague actually occurred at the stroke of midnight, as the Jews were eating the sheep, which the Egyptians worshiped as a deity. We are also told that even the firstborn of males were struck down, and in a place as licentious as ancient Egypt only God could know their identity. Thus there could be no room for doubt that the plague was God's doing, and that His people were safe and secure as destruction was abroad in the land in the middle of the night.
Bayamim ha-hem bazman ha-zeh. As it was then, so it is now. We now have, praise God, another holiday when we will recite Hallel at night, a holiday that is also zman heruteinu, Yom Ha'atzmaut. And here too, the miracle occurred at night, for at the stroke of midnight of May 14-15, 1948, 6 Iyar 5708, the Union Jack came down for the last time and the Jewish people assumed among the peoples of the earth the sovereignty to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle it, but which it had not exercised since Hasmonean times in the first century B.C.E. That's right, the Sixth of Iyar. That fateful midnight occurred on Shabbat that year, and to prevent desecration of Shabbat the secular, socialist provisional government that had nothing but contempt for everything holy decided to jump the gun and declare the state on Friday afternoon, against the advice of the Americans and all the experts who were telling us that it was not the right time, and that the state, if declared, could not possibly survive. Hence, Yom Ha'atzmaut is celebrated on the Fifth of Iyar, except when the celebration or that of Yom Hazikaron the previous day might engender Sabbath desecration. Such will be the case this year, when to forestall preparations on Shabbat for Yom Hazikaron on Sunday, Yom Hazikaron will be commemmorated on Monday, with Yom Ha'atzmaut on Tuesday, the Sixth of Iyar, when the state actually came into being. I learned this from a booklet sent several years ago my Yeshivat Merkaz Harav.
On the second night of Pesah we begin counting Sefirat ha-Omer, the seven-week period beginning with Pesah and building up to Shavu'ot. Most of us will observe the sefirah, or part of it, as a period of semi-mourning for the disaster that befell us in 135 C.E. when the Roman legions brutally crushed our last hope for independence. Rabbi Akiva and his students figured prominently in that hope, since Rabbi Akiva supported Bar Kokhba's revolt against Rome, and sent his students to fight in Bar Kokhba's army. It is no accident that the Religious Zionist youth movement is named for Rabbi Akiva. And now, here we are with our flag flying proudly over our country, an army that kicks butt, the best flyboys on earth, an economy that is the envy of the Middle East, a flourishing democracy unique in that region, and where are the ancient Romans? Sefirat Ha'omer, before it became a time of mourning, was an occasion for intense joy. It was harvest season, bracketed by the bringing of the omer of barley on 16 Nissan and the two loaves of wheat bread seven weeks later. And now the fertility of our soil, lost during nineteen centuries of foreign occupation, given up on by one commission after another of foreign rulers, was restored as soon as Eretz Yisrael was watered again with Jewish sweat. For this we are to mourn? What is happening here is the reverse of what happens to an avel on Shabbat. Shiva is suspended, the avel dresses for Shabbat and goes to synagogue, publicly he is not showing any signs of mourning, but inwardly he grieves for his departed relative as a mourner. Today's sefirah occasions outward signs of mourning while inside we experience the joy of freedom, of our soil's fertility, of renewed physical strength as we labor on the land and bring forth its fruits.
May we soon see this process of ge'ulah come to its glorious conclusion with the bringing of the Omer and the two loaves of bread amid joyous celebration.
Hag Kasher V'sameah.