One of my favorite Jewish rituals is s’phrirat ha-omer, the ritual of Counting the Omer. This is the ancient practice of counting of each of the forty-nine days between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. It comes from the commandment in our Torah to count forty-nine days beginning from the day on which the Omer, a sacrifice containing an omer-measure of barley, was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. We are commanded to continue counting up until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on Shavuot. In modern-day Judaism, we continue to count the Omer – minus the sacrificial rituals – starting on the second day of Passover and ending the day before the holiday of Shavuot – 49 days.
The reason I look forward to this practice every year, is that our rabbis cleverly replaced the sacrificial element with a ritual of personal, spiritual significance. The Rabbis didn’t ask us to count just because that’s what used to be done in the days of the Temple in Jerusalem; we are not counting to connect ourselves back to the sacrificial system, or as an expression of hope that we might one day return back to the sacrificial system. Instead, the idea of counting each day represents, for us, spiritual preparation and anticipation for the giving of the Torah, which is what we commemorate on Shavuot.
Just as the Israelites physically wandered in the wilderness during the days between redemption and revelation, so too do we spend the days between celebrating redemption and celebration revelation in a period of spiritual wandering.
Our sages compared the process of growth to the two types of grain offered at either end of the original counting period. In ancient times, barley was a food for animals and wheat was consumed by humans. The rabbis taught that The Exodus from Egypt was an unearned gift from God, like the food of animals who are not expected to develop their spiritual potential. But during the first forty-nine days of being a free people the Hebrews worked on developing themselves spiritually, so that they would be able to receive the Torah on their own merit. Thus, each day of the Omer is connected to a different stage of spiritual development determined by the hierarchy of Divine characteristics, or aspects of God, as they were understood by the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics.
The period of the Omer last seven weeks. Each of these seven weeks is associated with one of the seven lower sephirot, or Divine characteristics: Chesed, Gevurah, Tipheret, Netzach, Hod, Yesod, and Malchut – compassion, strength, beauty, eternity, submission, foundation and majesty.
Additionally, each day of each of the seven weeks is also associated with one of these same seven sefirot, creating forty-nine sacred combinations. For example, the first week of the Omer is associated with chesed, compassion, and the fourth day of each week is associated with netzach, endurance. So today,the fourth day of the first week of the counting of the Omer, is netzach sh’b’chesed, eternity with compassion.
Symbolically, each of these 49 combinations represents an aspect not only of God’s character, but of the character of each one of us, that can be improved or further developed as we reflect on our spiritual selves.
Believe it or not, “there’s an app for that” – actually, there are many Omer apps to be found for those, like me, who try to do everything on their smartphones and tablets. Omer apps tend to come with the Hebrew blessings, English translations, daily reminders, and some sort of text or quote or teaching to help the tech-savy spiritual wanderer focus in on the theme of the day. You can even post directly to Facebook or Twitter, to remind others to count along with you.
This evening, my favorite of the not-one-but-THREE Omer apps on my ipad helped me to focus in on the theme of netzach sh’b’chesed, eternity with compassion, by reminding me of the story of Honi HaMaagal, Honi the Circle Maker, who, according to Talmud, planted a carob tree even though he was too old to ever eat of its fruit because, as he said, “I came into a world with carob trees which my parents had planted for me. I will plant trees for my children so that they will also have carob to eat.”
“This,” my Omer App tell me, “is an example of netzach sh’b’chesed. It is kindness that lasts beyond us.”
How many of the things that we do are things that we do for ourselves?
And how many of the things we do are things that we do for others?
How many of the things that we do for others are really things that we do for ourselves?
Netzach sh’b’chessed, kindness that lasts beyond us, is the most selfless kind of kindness. It is more than kindness – it is compassion, a deep and strong feeling that is directed outward at another, and which is accompanied by a strong desire to care for that other. Acts and feelings rooted in Netzach sh’b’chessed are among the most difficult because selflessness is not usually in our nature. Most of us have to really work at it, and all too few of us consciously strive to work at it, which is why taking time to reflect on the spiritual significance of the daily Omer count is so important.
These 49 days remind us that we have to work to overcome our baser, animal instincts and struggle to be worthy of God’s gifts to us. Most of us cannot claim to have earned our freedoms, our families, perhaps even our fortunes. We live in an age where Jews are more free, more equal, and more successful than they’ve been in over 2000 years! How many of us can say that we’ve earned that right?
Even though the Israelites did not earn their freedom, they worked hard to be spiritually worthy of Torah, the physical manifestation of their relationship to the Divine. And so for us, to celebrate our Freedom and to celebrate the gift of Torah, without putting in the effort to reflect on our spiritual growth, would be hypocritical; an empty offering.
The rabbis did not leave us completely disconnected from the sacrificial system after all. We don’t offer barley and wheat, we offer something better, we offer ourselves.
Today is the fourth day of the Omer. Over the next 45 days, may we search deep within ourselves so that we may be worthy of all God’s gifts to us and so we may celebrate those gifts – not with empty words but with full hearts.
Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.