From Rabbi Gershon Winkler
Lag B’Omer and the Chutzpah of Bar Yochai
A Teaching from Gershon…
The 33rd Day of the Counting of the O’mer arrives Thursday, May 10, a celebratory time that is celebrated for two seemingly separate commemorations that has some of us confused and others of us totally oblivious. On the one hand, we are told it is a celebration of the ascension of the great second century mystic, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. And on the other hand, we are told it is a celebration of the end of a 32-day plague that struck thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples (Talmud Bav’li, Yevamot 62b).
Their shortcoming is alluded to in the number of days that they took ill, 32, the Gemmatria (numerical value) for ck lev, the Hebrew word for “heart”. It is said that they did not accord one another proper honor, or sucf ka’vod, whose numerical value, too, is 32, as honoring emanates from the heart. Akiva so empowered those who studied with him that many of them felt that they were one head above the others, resulting in lack of respect by omission or commission.
Why did this tragic plague occur specifically during the period between Spring and Summer – between Passover and Shavuot? Because that is the period during which the luster of the shechinah is most potent — the zee’v ha’shecheenah vbhfav uhz –as the Light of Creaton conjures then the fruition of all that lies dormant in the heart of the Earth, as is written: “The Earth is illuminated by [God’s] Glory” (Ezekiel 43:2). And honor is related to all this since when we honor someone, we call forth their shine, their luster, their brilliance, their beauty (16th-century Rabbi Yehudah Loew of Prague [MaHaRaL] in Chiddushay Agado’t, Vol. 1, folio 133 – Mesechet Yevamot).
The 33rd day of the O’mer, incidentally, falls on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, and 18 implies Life, it being the numerical value of the Hebrew word for Life, chai hj. And so this deadly plague ceased on that day, and the joy of life was then restored. Thus the celebration behind what we call Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Counting of the O’mer (16th-century Rabbi Yeshayahu ben Avraham in Sefer Ha’Sh’LaH, Mesechet Pesachim, Sefirat Ha’Omer 1:5).
Now what has Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai got to do with all this? Why is he celebrated on Lag B’Omer?
Listen. Rabbi Shimon happened to have been one of Akiva’s foremost disciples. He was among the few who were not stricken by the plague. He lived and breathed Akiva’s teachings, not just studied them. Day after day, as the Great Force of Darkness hovered over Judea, draining the disciples of their life breath, Bar Yochai challenged it, stood in its way, tried to avert it, to drive it away, to send it back to where it came from, but to no avail. A Heavenly Decree was a Heavenly Decree. But Rabbi Shimon was not one to give up and he persisted relentlessly. By Day 32, The Great Force of Darkness began to weaken in the face of Rabbi Shimon’s tenacity. There he stood once again, chanting his prayers and incantations at the looming Force of Darkness. Realizing that it could no longer hold out against the master, the Force of Darkness complained to God:
“Master of the Universe! You sent me to wreak this destruction upon these disciples of Akiva and Bar Yochai is not allowing me to complete my task!”
Said God: “Pay no attention to the son of Yochai and continue fulfilling My Decree.”
The Great Force of Darkness, empowered by God, returned to cast its fatal shadow over the land, but again Bar Yochai was there to block its path, and this time outright threatening the Spirit of Darkness: “If you will not go away, I will utter an incantation upon you that will prevent you from ever again returning to the Heavens! And you will end up like the fallen angels Aza and Aza’el.”
His words further weakened the Spirit’s resolve and it fled back to the Heavens, this time terrified by Bar Yochai’s threat. Again, the Great Force of Darkness complained to God and again God admonished the Spirit not to any attention to the threats of Bar Yochai. When the Spirit of Darkness returned to resume its mission, Bar Yochai again blocked its path.
“You dare prevent what God has decreed?!” the Spirit angrily shouted. “Can’t you see that the Light of Torah has gone out, and it is destined to be forgotten? That few can uphold the sacred intent of its precepts?”
Said Bar Yochai: “Heaven Forbid! For the Light of Torah will never be extinguished if even a few are around to carry it, nor will Torah ever be forgotten, for her wisdom and inspiration is everlasting and will continue to shine against all odds and in spite of all impediments. As long as there is but even a single soul who believes this, it shall be so!”
In that moment, the Spirit of Darkness was called back to the Heavens and a great light shone in its place, accompanied by a still small voice that declared: “How worthy are you, son of Yochai, in that God decrees above and you abolish the decree below” (adapted from Tikunei Zohar, folios 255a-b and Talmud Bav’li, Shabbat 138b).
Back in the Heavenly Realm, the Spirit of Darkness asked God: “Why did you give in to him? He is but flesh and blood!”
Said God: “Because he reminded me of Noah.”
And so, the 33rd day came and went, and there was no more plague. And so, on the 33rd Day of the counting of the O’mer, we celebrate the end of the plague that struck Akiva’s disciples, and we celebrate the man who boldly challenged the Great Force of Darkness and reminded God, so to speak, of Noah, that all it takes to keep the world going is a single heart that believes, a single spark of hope, a single act of relentless chutzpah like the audacity of Bar Yochai.
From Rabbi Yoel Glick
Lag Ba’ Omer
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
A Sestina for Counting the Omer
Posted: 30 Mar 2013
We mark the Omer day
by day, spring unfolding light
as snowflakes in the breeze. One
follows another; we measure each week
of this dusty journey through
wild unknowing. Come and count.
Time to make our qualities count.
The kaleidoscope shifts every day,
each dawn a lens that God shines through.
What in me will be revealed as light
streams into me each week?
Seven colors of the rainbow make one
beam of white. God is One
and God’s in everything we count.
Lovingkindness permeates the first week,
then boundaries, harmony, each day
a different lens for light
to warm our hearts as it glows through.
And when the Omer count is through?
We’ll stand at Sinai, every one
— every soul that’s ever been — light
as Chagall’s floating angels. Count
with me, and treasure each day.
A holy pause caps every week.
Endurance comes into play: week
four. We wonder, will we make it through?
Humility and splendor in a single day,
two opposites folded into one.
Roots strengthen us as we count.
Every day, more work to do and stronger light.
Torah is black fire on white, light
of our lives. In the seventh week
time warps and ripples as we count.
Kingship and presence come through,
transcendence and immanence bundled as one,
wholly revealed on the forty-ninth day…
Feel the light now pouring through.
Each week the seven sefirot become one.
It’s time to count the Omer, now, today.
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Hearing Into Speech: Sound, Prophecy, and Love
Reb Laura connects the sense of hearing with the week of Chesed in the Counting of the Omer.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Yizkor (for Yom HaShoah)
The memory of my beloveds
my birth right
a childhood home
the library —
The memory of my parents
The memories of their parents
a shop in the city for those who made it
the goldene medinah
school a job a home
I remember the memories of my parents
of their parents
the ones who didn’t make it –
My great grandparents crouching in a corner of a cold room
Ukraine Minsk Byelorusse
Vilna Salonika Casablanca
I remember hiding their children in a cellar;
A broken leaf of a table for study
the holy intent of our lives.
Outside they howled in the street
we sat huddled together for warmth around a fire
reading our books and teaching our children.
In a world without sense we made sense.
I remember, I remember it all.
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
Resources on the Days of the Omer from
From Rabbi David Ingber
Counting the Omer: Ending the Beginning
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Lag B’Omer: Liberation=Balance
Joy Amidst Sadness
The period of the counting of the Omer, from Passover to Shavuot, is generally viewed as a time of mourning. Lag B’omer stands as a refuge of joy amidst a time of subtle sadness. It is a thirty-two-day stretch from Passover to Lag B’omer, where weddings, music and even haircuts are not performed. These days were reserved to mourn, being that it is the period in which 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students died from a mysterious plague. They died, says the Talmud, because “they did not act respectfully towards each other.”
Simplyput, Lag B’Omer, the thirty-third day of counting the Omer, is celebrated because it was at that time when the students ceased dying. More importantly, and a bit ironically, Lag B’Omer is also distinguished as a day of joy since it is the day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s passing- his yartzeit.
Carob and Water
Rabbi Shimon was a second century sage who was one of five students of Rabbi Akiva who survived the plague. Beyond being a prime student of the illustrious Rabbi Akiva, as he once told his own disciples, “My sons, learn my ways, for my ways are the finest of the finest of Rabbi Akiva’s,” he was a great person in his own right.
Rabbi Shimon was one of the first to openly transmit to his circle the mystical teachings of the Torah, otherwise known today as Kabbalah, and he was the author of its fundamental text, the book of Zohar (Illumination).
In contrast to the other students who perished during this dreadful period, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yachai survived, and went on to live a full life, passing away at a ripe old age. So much so that when he did move on to the other realm it was seen as a time to rejoice, to celebrate the life and work of this noble teacher. The fact that he did complete his life and continued to teach and spread Torah, has tremendous historical and sociological significance, with practical ramifications until this present day. In addition, it was R. Shimon himself who requested of his people to dedicate the day of his passing as “the day of my joy.”
Steps in the Path of Personal Development
As there are no coincidences, everything is divinely orchestrated and organized, what needs to be explored is the connection between his death as a time of joy, and the others students’ deaths as a time to mourn, and their relationship with the counting of the Omer.
The forty-nine days of the counting represent forty-nine steps in the path of personal development. Kabbalistic teachings speak of seven primary emotional Sefirot. These are, chesed/giving, gevurah/ restraint, tiferes/harmony, netzach/ambition, hod/devotion, Yesod/connection and malchus/ receptiveness. Each of these emotional attributes on their own, without a solid dosage from the others creates a reality of tohu — confusion and chaos.
For example, having chesed without gevurah would be to allow a child to do whatever they want, at whatever time they want. Yet, this form of ‘giving’ is counterproductive, as children need borders and discipline to properly flourish. To introduce an order of tikkun — correction and perfection — there needs to be a blending of the attributes so that each one of the seven contains all the other, hence the number forty-nine, the days of counting and perfecting our emotional state.
The Middle Path
The point of it all is balance, the middle path, the balancing and counter-balancing of our emotional state. The most extreme of our emotions are aroused in a time of tragedy or in a time of comedy, when life throws us something unexpectedly bad, or something surprisingly good. Either way, our instincts are immediately awakened, and most often, we go into auto-pilot and react as opposed to being pro-active.
Of course, the death of an individual is going to stir within us deep emotions of sadness. In fact, the Rambam/ Maimonides refers to a person who does not show sadness in the face of death as an achzari — a cold hearted person. Not only can we mourn, but we are even encouraged to weep and bewail corporal death. The first three days of Shiva are called the days of weeping. So there is certainly a time for sadness. Sadness, but not depression, which is when you think life is over, but deep sadness. And yet in the midst of a national time of subtle mourning, this being the first 32 days of The Omer, which commemorates the unanticipated death of the students of R. Akiva, there stands Lag B’Omer like a Tree of Life. The joyous day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s passing comes along and counter-balances our emotional state, and injects a healthy dosage of joy.
It is precisely the mystic par excellence, the illustrious R. Shimon, the one who appears beyond the immediate, who can show us that even in death, an assumed end, with no hope or future, there can be found joy and a time of rejoicing. For what at times seems “bad” at the moment may turn out to be “good” at a later time, and what is perceived as an end in the now may morph into a beginning of a brighter future in the present moment.
Lag B’Omer gives life and hope to the days that are otherwise meant to mourn. On the calendar, Lag B’Omer is on Chai Iyyar – the eighteenth day of the month of Iyyar. Chai is life, for Lag B’Omer gives life to the entire month of Iyyar, and by extension infuses all the days of our life with a healthy measure of joy, optimism, and hopefulness.
From Rabbis Without Borders
The Torah of second chances
By Alana Suskin
A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son. It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.
It’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.
That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about …second chances. Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus, to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.
They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)
Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because there isn’t really anything to observe – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.
What is that all about?
Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!” and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”
“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”
So, two things:
First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.
I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday. It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation. In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters, the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that these two cases are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”
IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.
According to Kabbalah, Rainbow Day is also the day of Malkhut in Yesod, a unity of masculine and feminine that represents a milestone on the way to the revelation of Shavuot. For us, it can represent a chance to commit ourselves to the rainbow covenant, to turn from actions that destroy the earth, to turn our lives away from unraveling earth’s climate and the web of life, from diminishing earth’s abundance.
The rainbow signified a new covenant between God and the land. It’s time for us to imagine a new covenant between humanity and the Earth, including the land and the seas, one that we start to live by as we change our lifestyles and habits. We can use the covenantal vision of the Shmitah year in Leviticus 25 to help guide our steps. And maybe next year it will be time to celebrate that new covenant.
Rainbow Day is pregnant with ritual possibilities related to the elements, to the midpoint between equinox and solstice, to the time between the fire of Lag B’Omer and the fire of Sinai, to global warming, to healing the waters, to the growing wheat crop in the land of Israel, and to all the meanings related to the journey from freedom to revelation. And rainbows are a symbol of diversity: the diversity of colors, of people, and of all life.
From Kol Aleph
Omer Poem: Sacred Harvest by Rabbi Leila Gal Berner
wandering in the wilderness
where the Holy One
will entrust us with
So little time
to bring in the harvest,
to gather the sheaves
that nourish our bodies
as Torah sustains our souls.
to learn to walk,
so little time,
to grow —
from frailty to strength,
from enforced servitude to joyful service.
Each day we count
one more day.
Each day we add
one more sheaf.
Each day we are
one day closer
to the Mountain,
one day closer
to sacred embrace
God of the Mountain,
God of the Teaching,
to cherish each day,
that our hearts
may be filled with
souls may bring
our freedom harvest
that our hearts
—Rabbi Leila Gal Berner
Omer Story: Changing Aleph to Ayin by Jason Mann
The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet speaks about the period of the Counting of the Omer as a time to change the Hebrew letter א / Aleph to the Hebrew letter ע / Ayin.
Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew word emirot which can mean “words.” Ayin is the first letter of the Hebrew word Omer symbolizing the counting of the Omer. Perhaps the Sfat Emet was thinking about the process of bringing the words of God into the world, and connecting this idea to the process of the Counting of the Omer.
Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew word Adonai (God). Ayin is the first letter of the Hebrew word Olam (world). So by changing Aleph to Ayin we can bring God into the world.
Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew word for light, ohr. Ayin is the first letter of the Hebrew word for eyes, eynayim. So by changing Aleph to Ayin we make divine light visible to our eyes.
The numerical value of the letter Aleph is “one” and the numerical value of the letter Ayin is “seventy.” In going from Aleph to Ayin we go from the number one to the number seventy.
Our tradition teaches us that there are seventy different nations in the world. In moving from Aleph to Ayin, one to seventy, we can aspire to bring the truth of God to all the nations of the world
Our Rabbis also taught us that there are seventy different faces of the Torah. Some say that there are seventy different ways to understand each part of the Torah. One can imagine that by changing the Aleph (one) to Ayin (seventy) we bring the full wisdom of the Torah into the world.
The diversity of humanity is like a prism which refracts God’s light as it enters the world. Through this process of seeking out the seventy faces of Torah, the diversity of humanity refracts the divine light of the Torah into the world. Each individual sees Torah in his or her own way. This process of refraction creates a beautiful array of different types of light and wisdom that can help bring the world to wholeness.
So how do we transform Aleph into Ayin? To make this change we need to go on a spiritual journey of discovery and change. Spiritual journeys are difficult, and they rarely take us along a straight line. The Counting of the Omer is this journey. If all of humanity took the time to bring divine love, compassion, and peace into the world, we could change the Aleph to Ayin. May it be so, this year and every year.
From Ritual Well
Resources for Counting the Omer
Soon we’ll start to count each day
the weeks until first harvest.
Not grain; instead, discernment.
Refine away the heart’s dross
on this labyrinth’s curved path.
When we get to forty-nine
will we be poised to receive?
MAY 11, 2009
The bonfire of the expansive heart
I ought to be lighting a bonfire tonight, since we’ve entered the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer. In Hebrew, the number 33 is spelled lamed-gimel; the two letters together are pronounced Lag, and the 33rd day of the Omer is called Lag b’Omer. And on Lag b’Omer, people light bonfires. Why? Well, it depends on who you ask.
One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B’Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.
Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman’s interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b’Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.
An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome. We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths…until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn’t want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a “plague” instead.
Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva’s, and it is to him that the Zohar — germinal work of Jewish mysticism — is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.
It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. Today is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another’s learning. It’s a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it’s a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.
In honor of that tradition, I want to offer a Hasidic teaching which relates to Lag B’Omer. It has nothing to do with the plague, or the rebellion, or anyone’s yarzheit, but it’s my favorite teaching about the holiday, hands down. This comes from a Hasidic rabbi called the B’nei Yisaschar (R’ Zvi Elimelech of Dinov.) (You can find a version of it in this post The illumination of a good heart; I’ve learned it from my teacher Reb Elliot.) It’s about the importance of having a good heart.
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his students: Go and see which is the good path to which a person should cleave. Rabbi Eliezer said: A good eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said: A good friend. Rabbi Yossi said: A good neighbor. Rabbi Shimon said: To foresee consequences. Rabbi Elazar said: A good heart. Their teacher said to them, I prefer the words of Elazar ben Arach over your words, for included in his words are all of yours.
–Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 2:13
Each of the rabbis’ answers is important; it matters that we look on the world wisely, that we be good friends to one another, that we be good neighbors, that we pay attention to the consequences of our actions. But having a good heart is the most important of all, because it encompasses all of these.
The Hebrew word for good, tov, spelled tet-vav-bet, has a numerical value of 17. The word for heart, lev, is spelled lamed-bet, which has a numerical value of 32. Taken together, they make up the 49 days of the Omer. The whole journey of counting the Omer can be seen as a journey toward learning to truly have, and express, one’s good heart. We’ve spent the first 32 days of the Omer cultivating the quality of heart; Lag B’Omer marks the transition into cultivating the goodness of those hearts, so that by the time Shavuot rolls around we’re really ready for what’s coming. Another resonance: Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer; and the 33rd word of the Torah is tov. This is a day for celebrating what’s good.
Returning to the Pirkei Avot quotation: what does it mean to look at the world with wisdom? Looking at the world as God did at the time of creation. What does it mean to have a good eye? It means seeing that creation is good, as God repeats throughout the early verses of Genesis. What does it mean to be a good friend? It means bringing opposites together in friendship, as God did in creating darkness and light as balances for one another. The Bnei Yisaschar sees the story of creation as a set of metaphorical instructions for us.
If we’ve been doing the spiritual work of counting the Omer — the work of refining our hearts — then today is a tipping point, a day when our hearts are capable of opening up in radical new ways. It’s that open-heartedness which allows us to see the goodness in all things, to really experience the world with a lev tov, a good heart. May we all be blessed to grow in good-heartedness this Lag B’Omer, and may that expansive quality of heart enrich the final days of the Omer to come.
Counting the Omer: Unifying our Internal Reality
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
This is about Counting the Omer
Universal Love: Omer Week One
SePHiRat HaOmer: a little spiritual practice to keep us Jews connected, during the seven long weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.
In ancient Biblical times, a public ritual of counting the measure of the ripening spring grain.
In contemporary Kabbalistic times, taking a personal measure of the ten SePHiRot.
What does the Kabbalistic concept of “SePHiRot” mean? There’s no simple answer. The Hebrew word hints at:
SPHeRes. Regions on a map of the universe, as drawn by ancient philosophers.
miSPaRim. Hebrew for “numbers,” organized into a mathematical model of reality.
SiPPuRim. Hebrew for “stories” that show us how to navigate our world.
SePHaRim. Hebrew for “books” teaching us how to read our existence.
SaPPHiRes. Multifaceted gems, refracting light into its parts.
Sephirot, it seems, are the building blocks of reality.
If we grasp the nature of these elements, we understand reality. That’s the hope.
But real life only shows us the elements in combination. So, our conception of the elements follows our theory of the whole.
Is the universe is made of Divine energy? If so, sephirot are names of God.
Is that energy best described as light? Sephirot are colours of the rainbow.
Or as vibration? Sephirot are elemental sounds.
Or as consciousness? Sephirot are attitudes of spiritual consciousness.
During Sephirat Ha’Omer, we meditate on a different sephirah each week. On its expression of God, light, sound, and consciousness.
Week One begins at sundown Tuesday April 11 and ends at sundown Tuesday April 18.
Week One is the week of chesed. The week to contemplate God as El, the color white, the vowel sound ehh, and the spiritual quality of love.*
El is a universal God. Traces of El are expressed in all religions, present in all natural phenomena.The first character in the Torah to call God El is the mysterious priest Melchizedek (Gen, 14:22). God, says Melchizedek, is El Elyon, Koneh Shamayim Va’aretz. Ultimate God, Creator/Owner/Shelterer of Earth and Heaven.
Look this week, for traces of El. Do you see El in acts of inter-religious friendship? In the “spiritual not religious movement”? In the impulse to walk outdoors instead of attend synagogue?
White reminds me of snow and clouds. It is the colour of water, of deep quiet, of high mountains and blindingly bright light. A colour whose purity can be attained only through grace. When do I yearn for such purity? How do I imagine it will heal me?
The sound “ehh” carries breath through the word chesed. When do you breathe out the sound “ehh”? For you, is it a sound of determination or resignation? What words animated with “ehh” come to mind? Do they cluster around a theme? Can you arrange them in a whimsical rhyme?
And the quality of love — it’s like a rainbow in itself. Or perhaps a white light of integrated qualities. Think about it: Love relies on the power of all seven sephirot of the Omer: Kindness. Boundaries. Compassion. Endurance. Gratitude. Reliability. Presence.
How do those seven qualities challenge you in love? How do they support you?
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Boundaries by Design: Omer Week Two
Sephirat Ha’Omer: seven weeks of spiritual practice, taking account of the elements – the sephirot — of spirit.
Remember the Periodic Table of the Elements from basic Chemistry? It’s a simple graphic, listing the elements of matter, arranged from the most rarified to the most dense.
Sefirot_ConventionalDiagram-medlargeKabbalistic tradition offers something like it: two diagrams of the sephirot, linear and circular.
The linear model is anchored in three lines, like a human body: centre, right and left. Lines of sephirot flow from this stick body’s head down to its feet. The model tells a story: Once there was a primordial human being who contained all the possibilities of creation. We could recover these possibilities, if we develop a skilled mind.
eyn-sof-art-david-friedmanThe concentric circle model shows a set of nested sephirot. The outer circle is the most ineffable element; the centre circle is the most familiar. The model mimics ancient drawings of the universe: our familiar earth encircled by its atmosphere, its solar system, its galaxy, its quadrant, its universe, its creator. The diagram show us tiny yet protected, nestled within a complex divine body and a great cosmological process.
Two shapes; two stories. Two templates; two teachings. In each case, order, design, and boundaries shape what we see. That’s gevurah: the meaningful boundary.
Gevurah is the work of Elohim – God’s character in the Torah’s creation story. God speaks the chaos into shape, carving designs with sound. Notice Elohim’s work in the diversity of rocks, plants, and animals. In their predictable interactions. In the surprise developments when one adjusts to the other. Can we walk through the week with wonder at the world’s design?
Gevurah is present in human speech, too. Our feelings shape our breath; our mouths form breath into words. Our minds design sentences, monologues, conversations. Notice the complex vowel pattern in the word Gevurah, which also means military might. Eh-oo-ah. It’s the same pattern as Refuah, healing. Will we choose harmful or healing patterns of speech? How can we consciously perfect our conversational boundaries?
Gevurah, some teachers say, shines with red light. Red, the colour of blood. Of life. And death. “If am I not for myself who will be?” asks our teacher Hillel, because good boundaries can save life. “If I am only for myself, then what am I?” he adds, because strict boundaries can leave another to die. We can learn the practical wisdom to measure Gevurah correctly. What local resources will we find?
Circular sephirot: David Friedman. Helpful scholarly source: Sanford Drob.
Beyond Opposites: Omer Week Three
Don’t contradict yourself.
It’s either A or not A. The law of the excluded middle.
A thing is itself, and not its opposite. A=A. It’s the identity principle.
But these logical rules don’t operate in Kabbalah. Or in human psychology.
Kabbalists teach that the Divine Itself violates this rule. God is Eyn Sof (Infinity). God’s plurality includes all things compatible and incompatible. Even things we imagine are opposite to God.
“World” and “God” are two distinct concepts. The world is concrete, immediate, physical, temporal. God is abstract, transcendent, spiritual, eternal. Yet our experience of God is contained in our experience of the world. And the world is contained in God’s infinite being. “God” and “World” are two concepts for a single metaphysical reality, seen from two points of view.
Depth psychologists speak of ego and shadow. Ego is the self we consciously hold. We know our ego reasonably well. Shadow is the part of self we refuse to own. A little psychic storage box for traits incompatible with our conscious values. Traits we seem to see only in other people. People whom we denigrate, without compassion. People who reflect us, seen from another point of view.
Which brings us to this week’s sephirah: Tiferet. Literally, Tiferet means glory, splendor, beauty. What kind of beauty? Heart beauty. Integrative beauty. When the sefirot are organized into a human stick figure, Tiferet is the heart. It sits on the middle line, integrating the “love” and “boundaries” that flank it. In Kabbalistic discourse, Tiferet is often translated as compassion.
Compassion is love across boundaries. Imagine someone you’ve criticized as morally deficient. Now imagine them grieving. Do you remember your own grief? Can you feel with them? That’s compassion, a spark of love across a boundary. A recognition of sameness in difference. Tiferet.
The divine name YHWH points us towards Tiferet. YHWH is a verb, the participle “Being” – but in an unspecified tense. Or perhaps in all tenses: Was-Is-Will Be. An integration of the entire timeline of consciousness. An active rejection of the law of non-contradiction. Feel this name alive in the world.
Tiferet’s colour is purple. The ancient Hebrew word for “purple,” argaman, means “weave.” Purple is a weave of blue and red, in a dazzling spectrum of integrations. Have you worn an outfit accessorized with multiple shades of purple? You looked great! Because all shades of purple go well together. In the purple family, no opposites exist.
Speak the word Tiferet aloud. Notice its vowel pattern: ee-eh. Try to make those sounds without a consonant. Notice how it mirrors the sound of breathing. In-breath eee, out-breath eh. Recognize that the breath can only go in two opposed directions, in and out. And that every pair of opposites is a complete cycle. That’s the spirit of Tiferet.
Inspirations: Sanford Drob, Rachel Elior, Arthur Waskow, Marcia Prager, Queen Elizabeth, Carl Jung, Mario Jacoby, Joseph Gikatilla, George Robinson, David Cooper, B.K.S. Iyengar. Image: genius.com
Psychic Energy Valve (Omer Week Four)
Netzach (endurance), Hod (glory), Yesod (foundation).
When the sephirot are arrayed in the form of a human body, netzach and hod are its hips; yesod is its pelvis. They make forward motion possible, turning ideas into actions.sefirot body
Medieval Kabbalist Azriel of Gerona (1160-1238) described netzach-hod-yesod as an integrated mechanical system. Netzach is a simple check valve, allowing energy to flow from above. Hod is a control valve, managing quantity of flow. Yesod is a multi-function valve, algorithmically directing flow through different shaped pipelines.
Azriel’s image evokes Freud’s three-part model of the human psyche. Id overflows with raw psychic energy. Ego regulates the flow, balancing social life with personal drives. Superego repeats the rules that structure behaviour.
Netzach seems to be the id, a torrent of desires for self, others, and the world. Unlimited psychic fuel for projects. Nothing curbs it; everything feeds it. (I’m terrible at moderating it.)
No wonder Joseph Gikatilla (1248-1305) associates netzach with the divine name Adonai Tzevaot: Lord of Hosts. The power to call on crowds of angels, assistants turning ideas into action. How else could desire be actualized?
Perhaps through a series of moderating valves. A netzach-hod-yesod system of discernment. Where netzach is not id, but a first gateway for using its energy.
A gateway that can open with sound. I say the word netzach. Note its vowel sounds. Ehh — Ahh. Breathe out ehh from my chest and ahh from my belly. Again. And again. Until the breath becomes a valve that quiets my thoughts, calms my feelings.
And I see the path to hod and yesod: what is feasible, and what form it might take.
From Chaya Kaplan Lester
I don’t know about you, but Passover is hard on me. Hard on my faith. Hard on my marriage too. I can’t seem to make it to Seder night without a resounding chorus of my own low moans of protest. Protest against the toil of it all. The cleaning. The cooking. The taking care of everyone and everything…again. Another round of exhausting rites and ritual, long nights and a few too many fights. I inevitably seem to miss out on G!d along the way.
So I am particularly appreciative of Pesach Sheni. The Second Passover. The Holiday of Second Chances. This is the replay holiday, reserved for those who were unable to partake in the Pascal lamb on time. Exactly one month later, thankfully, we get another chance to tackle this whole freedom march, this time from a place of a little less stress and a lot more perspective.
I always seem to need it. I’m a second-chancer by nature. Doubling down on Pesach Sheni with a vengeance. – If you need it, you can have some second-chance too. It’s this Tuesday night/Wednesday and it’s real easy. Just get out a piece of matza and sit down with whoever you lost along the way. Ask for a second chance; from G!d, your spouse, your self, your friend.
After all, second-chances have their own particular flavor of freedom. It’s richer, more subtle and complex than the first taste could ever have.
Let’s try this again.
To connect the daats
– to know each other
with all of our incompletes.
Let’s bring back the mystic,
because I missed-it
a month ago
in all the madness
of the Exodus.
I just flat-out missed it.
I was too bloody
and the table was painted
with the sweat and toil of slavery
though we played like we were free
for the sake of the children,
We were as distant as
in their usual orbits
– light years between us.
‘Do not worry, we will loop
to eclipse each other again’
– I said.
‘We are like the moon and the sun
that don’t ever really touch
except every once
in a while
on a starry night
one sphere atop another
still so distant
but stacked with precision
in a line of connection
and perfect symmetry.
It is all about our perspective,
When the M of me stops
gazing down and
turns heavenward instead
to become ‘We’.
Just lift your head.
Come cast your shadow over me.
With nothing but forgiveness
the close flat facts of our connection
plain as any page
of matza reads
You will bring the charoset
for sweetness between us
and I can bring the marror
to memorialize the distance.
We will sandwich them
just like the sages.
I was lost in my own loss,
my own trauma.
I carried the old bones
of Joseph, you know.
Like a mother who buries
her priestly sons
I lost my chance
to celebrate you.
But I won’t lose my chance
to beg forgiveness
and to press with compassion
that eternal reset button
on our friendship.
So let’s try this again.
With no pomp and circumstance.
No children, no guests, no friends.
Just a page of matza
and four open palms
“And with a strong hand
we were brought out of Egypt.”
You are my Exodus.
My strong hand.
is my freedom.
Our love is my holy land.
Let’s leave Egypt
From the Open Siddur Project
יום קשת מ״ב בעומר | The 42nd Day of the Omer is Rainbow Day
SHARED BY AHARON VARADY AND DAVID SEIDENBERG
In the Jewish seasonal calendar, the days of the Omer, between the 17th and 27th of Iyyar, fall on the midpoint between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. The 42nd day of the Omer ends the week associated with the divine attribute (sephira) of Yesod — foundation, and is a gateway for entering the week associated with the innermost sephira, Malkhut (Majesty) — the divine kingdom in nature revealed before all.
In the story of the Great Flood, the deluge lasted for over a year, but the time separating the beginning from the end on the calendar is only 10 days. According to the Torah, the flood began on the 17th of Iyyar (“the 17th day of the second month” in Genesis 7:11). The 17th of Iyyar falls on ל״ב בעומר (Lev BaOmer — the heart of the Omer) the day before Lag BaOmer, days already associated with fire.
Yom Keshet יום קשת — Rainbow Day — the 42nd day of the Omer (מ״ב בעומר) is the 27th of Iyyar (“the 27th day of the second month” in Genesis 8:14), when the animals, along with Noaḥ’s family, left the ark, and the rainbow (קשת keshet) appeared as a sign of covenant. This should be a time of celebration. According to the kabbalistic counting of the Omer, Rainbow Day is also the day of Malkhut in Yesod, a unity of masculine and feminine that represents a milestone on the way to the revelation of Shavuot. For us, it can represent a chance to commit ourselves to the rainbow covenant, to turn from actions that destroy the earth, to turn our lives away from unraveling earth’s climate and the web of life, from diminishing earth’s abundance.
As we move from the flood waters of Lev baOmer through the fires of Lag baOmer and through the coming week, we are reaching toward a different kind of illumination, the rainbow, which balances water and fire to create such a powerful expression of beauty and diversity. The rainbow covenant is special—not only because it’s the first covenant in the Torah. It’s also not just a covenant with humanity, but rather a covenant between G‽Δ and all living creatures, and between G‽Δ and the land.
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