Tonight’s Sermon: S’phirat HaOmer: Counting the Omer, Earning God’s Blessings

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: ChesedGevurahTipheretNetzachHodYesod, 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?

AND

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?

I can’t.

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.

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Siri: An Imaginary Friend for Adults?

A few weeks ago I upgraded – after at least a year of anticipation – to an iphone with Siri.

My new favorite game is to say Jewish things to Siri and see what kind of response I get.

Yesterday I (prematurely) came up with an idea, leading to the following “conversation”:

siriMe: Happy Passover Siri!

Siri: If I’m not mistaken, Passover begins on March 26th.

Me: I believe you are correct!

 

Siri: I am right, and you are right, and all is right as right can be!

Me: You’re funny Siri!

Siri: Ha! I’m glad you think so!

 

If this doesn’t emphasize why I love Apple and their brilliant products, nothing will.

Nachat Ruach: Ritual Sacrifice & Spiritual Gratification

Still processing the amazing installation weekend that just passed. Surrounded  by loved ones – family, friends and congregation – I felt so appreciated and embraced and loved. It was quite amazing. I hope to write more about it soon but in the meantime, here is my sermon from Friday night.

Nachat Ruach: Ritual Sacrifice & Spiritual Gratification 

In our portion this week,

as we begin Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus together,

we read a description of the olah, the burnt offering,

brought by individual Israelites at specific moments in their lives.

Just before the offering of the animal,

the priest says to the individual:

“You [the offerer]

shall lay a hand upon the head of the burnt offering,

that it may be acceptable in your behalf…

When we think about the sacrificial cult of the Israelites

we conceive of it as very different from our own ways

of worshipping and communicating with God,

and in most ways it is very different.

Something I often find myself pointing out

when teaching about the Israelite cult,

is how in those days, the priest acted as an intermediary

between The People and God.

Individuals didn’t seem to have much of a role

in their own relationship to God.

Upon reflection of this passage however,

I began to wonder if perhaps I had missed

an important piece of the ritual.

In the case of the olah sacrifice,

the Israelite, the lay person,

gets to actively participate in the offering process,

by laying their hands upon the offering,

physically acknowledging their role in the Divine relationship.

It is also important to not that the olah offering

appears to be one that ANYONE can participate in,

regardless of gender –

even regardless of whether  they are an Israelite-by-birth

or whether they are a non-Israelite

living amid the Israelite community.

The parsha says:

Adam ki-yakriv mikem korban l’Adonai,

When any person of you presents an offering…

For a system that is usually so careful to distinguish roles

for different class systems, genders, tribes, and peoples,

this seems a radical break with the norm.

When I think of the olah offering in this way,

I can’t help thinking about our own community,

here at Temple Beth David,

where everyone is invited to participate

regardless of age, gender, economic status, sexual orientation

or even religion;

and where – even more-so –

everyone is expected to bring their own contributions;

to actively and physically participate in our rituals and activities,

and take ownership of their own spiritual journey.

In the olah ceremony,

the individual is recognized as an individual

while at the same time,

the individual is required to partner with the priest

in order for the sacrificial service to take place.

Individuality is recognized,

Collaboration is required.

The same is true for us.

Temple Beth David prides itself –

as it should! –

on its recognition of respect of individuals.

Everyone is welcome here.

Everyone is encouraged to participate and contribute

in their own unique way.

We work hard to try to find a place in our community

and in our leadership structure

for anyone who wants to be there,

even if it means rethinking how things have been done in the past.

I feel incredibly blessed to be a rabbi of such a community,

where the spirit of volunteerism

and the sense of communal responsibility are strong,

and where menchelchite is the rule rather than the exception.

These communal values don’t only foster an environment

that is attractive to all of you who affiliate here,

but they also make this a wonderful place

for a rabbi to work and lead and grow.

Every day, I feel lucky to be that rabbi.

Earlier, I mentioned that the parsha SEEMED to indicate

that the olah could be offered by anyone.

Of course, the rabbis rarely ever came to an easy consensus

on matters of interpretation.

So of course, the matter subject to other perspectives.

The difficulty in the verse I mentioned above

is that the Hebrew word understood by us to mean “any person”

is adam, which can also be translated as “any man”.

Gender-related terms in the Torah can often be ambiguous

and technically, there’s no right or wrong answer.

In a Talmudic debate

about whether or not women were thus precluded

from laying their hands on the olah offering,

Rabbi Yosi introduces the concept of  nachat ruach,

the gratification of the spirit.

The thinking is that while women may not have been obligated

to fulfill the religious commandment of the olah offering,

they might want  to participate

in order to feel a sense of nachat ruach,

of gratification –

in Yiddish we say naches.

Rabbi Aaron Miller, in a D’var Torah

for the URJ “10 Minutes of Torah” weekly email commentary,

expounds on the concept of nachat ruach.

“What does it mean to gratify the spirit?” he asks.

“In our time, as in…ancient days…

love of Judaism is transmitted through nachat ruach,

the spiritual gratification

that creative Jewish living can bring.

Nachat ruach is not learned from scrolls or books.

Nachat ruach is fostered through spouses and partners

blessing each other at the Shabbat table,

arts and crafts at a Passover seder,

and our countless other contributions

to a tradition that each of us received.

These are the building blocks of nachat ruach,

the things that gratify the spirit.”

In the 8 months since I arrived here at Temple Beth David,

it has become more and more evident to me

that this is a community

where nachat ruach is created, fostered and maintained.

Where relationship between people,

and where relationships between people and God

are valued and prioritized

along-side traditional rituals and Jewish values.

I believe that those of you who give of yourselves to this community,

and those of you who celebrate and mourn

and pray and schmooze here

come away with a feeling of nachat ruach,

of gratification of the spirit.

I believe that.

And I know for certain that I,

as the lucky rabbi of this community

definitely feel a sense of nachat ruach each and every day.

It is so gratifying to be your rabbi!

My spirit feels full and enthusiastic and comfortable and complete.

Thank you for welcoming me, supporting me,

Forgiving me, accepting me, and encouraging me.

Thank you for learning with me and teaching me;

For praying with me and celebrating with me

and living life Jewishly with me.

It is so gratifying to be your rabbi!

I feel truly blessed.

CCAR Takeaways

Well the conference is over and on the whole it was pretty good. Some of the speakers were particularly great – ask me about the session with 23andme and with Facebook’s VP of Global Policy. Getting to hear from Howard Gordon was also a highlight.

The theme of Rabbis Leading the Shift in some ways lived up to my expectationsand in others did not. A lot of the “new thinking” was not new to me, but it was good to see that all of my colleagues were engaging in the conversation, and there were some great text studies that left me with a lot to think about (more on that in another post).

At last night’s concluding service however, led by my good friend Rabbi Marci Bellows, I experienced something really profound. Services at Jewish conventions are always good. The energy of people who love to pray and want to pray is always exciting and rejuvenating. This service, at the end a of long program, at the end of a long day, at the end of a long convention, only had a small crowd in attendance. I was sitting int the front row – something I almost never do, but I wanted to support Marci by being front and center. Usually I’m more of a back row kind of girl – in class, on buses to NFTY events, in services (when I’m not on the bimah of course!) – so it was usual for me. Part of why I like the back of the room is because I like to people-watch (being ont he bimah is good for this too). But at the front, you can’t see the crowd. You can feel them though. As the service progressed, I began to feel aware of the presence and energy of my colleagues behind me. Even though I couldn’t see them, I could feel and hear that they were there, and I felt a part of something bigger than myself in a way that I don’t when I’m caught up in being an “observer apart”.

I began to think about the theme of the conference – Rabbis Leading the Shift – and I thought, “it should really be Rabbis Leading the Shift Together.” Afterall, we’re not alone in this. As I mentioned last week, I think and worry about the future of Judaism a lot. But what I realized in that moment of togetherness was that I’m not alone in this crazy, rapidly changing Jewish world; the fate of the Jewish People doesn’t rest solely on my shoulders. My colleagues are with me. They are behind me. We are all in this together.

As I thought about this, I reflected on the music we were making together in that moment. Most were singing the melody – holding steady; the status quo. Others, myself included, ventured to add harmonies. First one, and then another. Over the course of the song, some of those who started out singing the melody recognized the beauty and success of the harmonies, or were inspired by them, and shifted from holding the status quo to joining the counterpoint. Together all of us created beautiful, layered, balanced music. And it was good.

We need to be like this with the shifting Jewish landscape too.

We need rabbis to hold to the status quo; to hold us accountable; to hang back and be sure the new ways of thinking and doing are successful before plunging in.
And we need rabbis who are daring visionaries; who will see and hear what could be, and who will experiment and try and fail and try again.
And we need rabbis who will recognize the success of different models, and who will take themselves from the old way of doing things to the new.
And we need rabbis who will never change, so that we don’t forget what the original melody sounded like to begin with.

As I sang with my colleagues – facing forward, eyes ahead – feeling their energy behind me and hearing their voices in conversation and counterpoint with my own – I felt safe and reassured and peaceful. If we stick together, if we support and listen to and learn from each other – then we will successfully navigate this shift together, and Judaism will survive and, more than that, it will thrive.

How blessed I am to be a part of such a holy group of people. How grateful I am to know it.

CCAR update

Last year, Rabbi Arnie Gluck invites me to sit on the CCAR Israel Committee. This year, at the conference, I had the chance to listen in as Rabbi Gluck prepared his panel discussion with our Israeli colleagues from MARAM (the Israeli counterpart to CCAR) and to report on the panel for the CCAR blog.
You can find my blog posting here

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Why was I not more like Emma?

A few words about the intent of this blog.

I joked that “having a blog seems to be a rabbinic requirement these days,” and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel pressure to blog and have my voice heard and my presence felt in the Jewish social-media world. But it’s not a new pressure. Some of my friends and classmates have been blogging since the early days of rabbinical school. I’m rather a late-comer for a relatively tech-savvy member of my generation.

So why now?

Over the past 8 months I have been moved to tears, more than a few times, by the supportive embrace of my congregation as they affirm for me that the moments when they most appreciate me and what I have to say are the moments when I am sharing or being my truest self. Sharing my experiences of grief, stories about my family, my insecurities, my love of music and theatre, my (dare I say it.) “youthful” optimism, even my sense of fun – my congregation is not only interested in learning from “Rabbi Gottlieb”, they want to know and love “Emma” too. They have given me the validation and safe space to experiment with the question, “how can I bring more of “Emma” to “Rabbi Gottlieb”? How can I better integrate the rabbinic and non-rabbinic parts of my personality for the sake of my congregation, who deserve a rabbi who is open, truthful, authentic,and honest about the both the joys and challenges of life?

This blog’s title, and the poem with which I launched, are outgrowths of this experiment. I don’t want to be a rabbi who hides the fact that she has tattoos and a pitbull and that sometimes she makes mistakes and is still learning how to navigate this crazy world. I want to be a rabbi who says, “yes, I have a pitbull because I believe it’s a mitzvah to rescue dogs and to educate the world about people and animals that are stigmatized and misunderstood”; “yes, I have tattoos because I have studied and reinterpreted the idea of being created in God’s image, and I believe that tattoos which are appropriately chosen as a reflection of identity can be a powerful way to adorn the vessel that God gifted me – might even be an expression of chidur mitzvah (the embellishment or beautification of a mitzvah) rather than a violation of Jewish law”; “yes, life is hard and sometimes very unfair and as I struggle to make meaning of my experiences (Jewishly and otherwise) I become a better rabbi by sharing what I’ve learned, and by modeling how Judaism has framed my life’s experiences (both the negative and positive).”

Our Sages tell of Rav Zusya who, on his deathbed expressed this fear: “When I get to the gates of Heaven and they ask me why I was not more like Abraham or Moses, I will be able to say that I am not Abraham or Moses. But what will I tell them when they ask me, Why were you not more like Zusya?

I share Rab Zusyas fear. I know I can’t be a Moses or a Miriam, an Abraham or a Devorah, but I do need to figure out how to be a rabbi – a good rabbi – and still be true to “Emma”.

So that’s what this is all about. The pitbulls and the pearls. It might be a delicate balance but its an honest representation of my life’s journey and of one of the goals of my rabbinate. Surely there will be times when it would be easier to be more “Rabbi Gottlieb” and less “Emma”, but if I can’t recognize myself when I look in the mirror, what kind of rabbi will I ultimately be?