From Rishe Groner
Rabbi Akiva said:
Be happy, God-Wrestlers-Known-as-Israel,
How do you get pure – and who purifies you?
Your Parent in Heaven!
As is written: “I will sprinkle pure waters upon you..”
And it is also written: “God is the “mikveh” of Israel”
(Mikveh: the immersion bath. Mikveh: the hope).
Just as a mikveh cleanses the traumatized; so the Blessed Holy One cleanses Israel.
– Mishnah Yomah.
These are the words of a teaching that I typically spend these twenty four hours singing over and over again, shouting until I’m hoarse, to some very catchy and fun Chassidic style tunes. We sing it on this day of Lag Baomer, the 33rd day of the Lag Baomer, a day dedicated to celebration, joy, bonfires and gatherings. In honor of both Rabbi Akiva, the 1st-century Sage whose student population was decimated in a deadly pandemic which ended on this day; and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of his remaining students, a mystic and saint whose grave in the northern Israeli city of Meron draws hundreds of thousands on this day of his passing.
The celebrations in Meron are everything. For me, they are the ultimate in ancient Jewish pilgrimage festival, reset for modern times. I was last there twenty one years ago, but I still remember the thrill of the throngs of people; the booming music; the ecstatic, entranced dancing; the view of the Meron mountain and surrounding hills; the crowds of people at the gravesite praying for deliverance, for partnership, for health, for children, for success, for a miracle.
I thought I’d be there this year, but a variety of plot twists left me yesterday afternoon feeling low and struggling to stay present as I realized that I would not be at Judaism’s Funnest Festival TM this year.
I sat overlooking a wadi in the Judean desert, singing with the rising moon and staring into the bonfire, doing my best to surrender into the magic of Hod Sheb’Hod, the representation of Lag Baomer as a day of deep surrender, vulnerability and gratitude, without feeling that sadness that I was “missing out”.
Then I heard the news.
An unspeakable tragedy, claiming the lives of 45 identified so far, many still missing, and over 100 injured. A tight space, a slippery walkway, challenging logistics, miscommunications, who knows what – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that hundreds of souls, if not thousands, were impacted by this tragic, unfathomable freak accident, a painful punch in the gut from what was the first mass religious gathering after over a year of curbed holiday festivities.
In this week’s Torah portion of Emor, we speak of those moments.
Those mass gatherings of pilgrimage, when families and friends and extended communities come together to feast, to express gratitude, to share abundance and perform all kinds of interesting rituals, specific to the time of year.
There’s eating bizarre flat crackers at Passover in the early spring; waving the first grain harvest on Shavuot in the late spring; and dwelling in huts on Sukkot at the end of the harvest season. We’re given emotional as well as physical commandments: Not only do you have to raise a strange combination of plants on Sukkot, you have to rejoice on those days. On Yom Kippur, we don’t eat, and we also ‘afflict our souls’. The emotional prescription is a clear component – it’s actually a mitzvah.
Easier said than done.
Pilgrimages are one of the most ancient components of any form of religious tradition, and Judaism is no different. Whether it’s the ancient sacrifices or the modern gathering around a festive table, we all have nostalgic memories embedded in sitting at the Seder with our grandparents; hearing the High Holiday tunes in shul; or eating certain dishes on Shavuot. Holidays are our favorite times – some might say, the best times, in a world where being Jewish is not easy and never has been.
And then there’s last night. Lag Baomer.
Not a holiday from the Torah, or even Rabbinic tradition. A pilgrimage that arose from a combination of oral traditions, from the mystics of Tzfat to the pilgrims of Morocco to the Chassidim of Eastern Europe; based on stories from the Talmud and a mystic work called the Zohar.
And yet it is the last vestige of what was once our everything, the millions of people who converged on Jerusalem in the ancient days; now represented by the hundred thousand who brave the congested winding mountain roads and endless pushing and shoving in crowds, to touch the gravesite of the famed mystic Tannah, Rabbi Shimon; and dance shoulder to shoulder in community.
Last year, we didn’t, we couldn’t.
And this year, it was marked by devastation. Tragedy beyond words, that has me crying as I listen to the news and deciding to shut it off because I just can’t.
I can’t, but the grieving families; the people still unidentified; those traumatized at the scene; the hardworking medics and emergency staff – it’s all still there.
Lag Baomer, a day of darkness and light. A day of bonfires being lit into the darkness of the night; in memory of a man who dwelled for thirteen years in a cave, desperately trying to fuse that dynamic between darkness and light, above and below. After years of his eyes accustomed to the blackness and silence of the cave, Rabbi Shimon exited the cave and saw a simple man at work in the fields. His gaze sent out a holy fire that burned the man alive, and he had learned his lesson: It was time to integrate. To allow the fire and the darkness to dance with one another, not living in polarities. Not living in one or the other.
So many fires were lit last night, all over Israel and the entire world.
So many prayers, rising up, like flames to the heavens, in the midst of all the darkness of our world this last year or more.
So many feet dancing on the ground, connecting heaven and earth; darkness and light; integrating the fire into daily life and the daily life into the fire.
I have no answers, no inspiration. I know that my experience of Lag Baomer this year was one of full Hod Sheb’Hod, ultimate surrender; and yet – with it so much pain.
I think of this experience, and it makes me marvel again at the magic of the Beit Hamikdash, the pilgrimage space of our nation for so many years, where nobody was crushed, everyone had personal space, among the millions who flocked there to celebrate.
It makes me pray for those days again; of people gathering; coming together, dancing and celebrating in joy, not tragedy.
For our holidays to once again be pilgrimage festivals, where we can safely gather, without fear of viruses; stampedes, or any other pain and suffering.
For the Shechinah, the Divine Presence of light and embodied action that Rabbi Shimon’s teachings show us must be brought and experienced in the world, to be present and manifest in each and every one of us, our gatherings and our pilgrimages, as we connect in community through the pain and bring in the light.
I bless us all with a Shabbat of healing, comfort, safety and blessing.
May all the injured be healed. May the families find comfort. May all the souls rest in peace and demand of the soul of Rabbi Shimon, Rabbi Akiva and his plagued students, to bring about a world of peace, of gathering, of rejoicing and celebration.
Shabbat Shalom, with tears and love and dancing through the tears
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
The Faces of Lag Be-Omer
By: Rabbi Pinchas Giller
Lag be-Omer, the 33rd day of the 49 days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, has many identities. In kabbalistic terms, the minor holiday begins as the celebration of the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the hero of the Zohar. The Talmud had told the tale of his flight from the Romans, hiding in a cave, located, variously, in Peki’in or Lod. That tale and others attested to a turbulent and romantic career for the 2nd century Tanna. His reappearance as the hero of the Zohar, a thousand years later, reinforced the strong shadow of his presence in the general imagination. Isaac Luria would journey from Tsfat to Meron to make a festive meal on Lag Be-Omer, to celebrate the yahrtzeit.
The Zohar described the death of Rabbi Shimon in its penultimate passages known as the Idrot. According to those accounts, Rabbi Shimon died in the throes of mystical ecstasy while envisioning the ultimate secrets of the structure of God. At the moment of his death, the disciples were surrounded on all sides by walls of fire. The practice of lighting bonfires on Lag Be-Omer, which has led to many abuses in the charedi community, probably comes from this association. Moreover, the tale of Rabbi Shimon’s emergence from hiding involved him seeing, like the Biblical Noah, a rainbow (Heb.- keshet). So bows and arrows became associated with the festive day.
Hence, Lag Be-Omer emerged to prominence in a certain historical nexus, the progression from the Zohar’s appearance in the 13th century to the fulfillment of its ideas in the Galilee of the 16th century. In 1272, Petachia of Regensburg, one of the epic Jewish travelers of the medieval period, reported that the Jews of the Galilee “pray for rain in the cave of Hillel and Shammai and in the study room of Shim’on Bar Yochai” on Mt. Meron, and that description was certainly in hand when the Zohar recorded the inhabitants of Meron vying for the right to bury Rabbi Shimon there. The buildings over Rabbi Shimon’s grave at Meron were built by Rabbi Avraham Galante, a Zohar exegete and student of Rabbi Isaac Luria. Now Lag Be-Omer had, along with its story, a site, namely the slopes of Mt. Meron, where the central celebration takes place to this day.
In the non-kabbalistic world, Lag be-Omer was linked to a mysterious “plague among the students of Rabbi Akiva” alluded to in the later midrashic sources (Yevamot 62b). Was this a veiled references to martyrdom during the Jewish revolt? In any case, Rabbinic authorities prescribed a certain reticence during the Omer and a general ban on weddings. This impulse took on greater weight as the Church gained prominence and the season between Passover and Shavuot began to be shadowed by the Christian celebrations of Easter and Pentacost, a period when the local Christian clergy might fall back on some powerful sermons about the circumstances of Jesus’ death, leading to pogroms by the locals. So Jewish authorities in Ashkenaz counseled circumspection during this period, a reticence about celebrations that survives to this day, punctuated only by the Zionist holidays of Yom ha-Shoah, Yom ha-Zikharon and Yom ha-Atzmaut.
These overlapping identities held sway until the mid-20th century. American Judaism, in its excelsis, was fueled by the images Masada, Jewish militarism and Holocaust guilt. For example, the most popular volume in our Temple library was once called “Jews Fought Too” about American Jewish participation in World War II. In the course of this interest is what Max Nordau called “muscular Judaism,” American-style, Lag be-Omer was rebranded, becoming, like Chanukah, the holiday of Jewish resistance.
These identities may not be valid or historically accurate, but Isaac Luria still said of the Omer that the Torah states, “wheat portion for every head” (Heb. omer la-gilgolet, Exodus 16:16.). Whether or not, then, one observes customs of mourning during the Omer, one’s hair should run wild, and the screaming babies at Meron, waiting to get their first haircut, also have a part in the day. And I will have a little beard trim, and contemplate the ascension of Rabbi Shimon, as he left behind this world of dichotomies, dialectics and disunities in pursuit of the place where everything is One.
From the Hebrew College
Lag BaOmer: Starting Over Yet Again
Rabbi Ebn Leader
On Thursday night (April 29) we will count and celebrate the 33rd day of the Omer. The Omer has a consistent rhythm to it—count seven days seven times, one after another, and they will lead you to the climax of the 50th day, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. Marking the 33rd day feels like a strange break in that rhythm. It is not on the beat of seven, nor is it at the half point or at any other easily discernible breaking point. Why then do we mark it?
The Shulhan Arukh, the classic 16th century compendium of Jewish practices, has relatively little to say on the topic. “It is our custom not to marry between Pesach and Shavu’ot until the thirty-third of the Omer because the students of Rabbi Akiva died during that period . . . It is our custom not to cut our hair until the thirty-third of the Omer because they say that is when they stopped dying.” (Shulhan Arukh, OH 493:1-2)
One must go back to the Talmud, to get more context for this story.
It is said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students spread out from the town of Gevat to Antipatres, and they all died in one stretch of time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world was left desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our masters in the south and taught them.
Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimeon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua—they were the revival of Torah at that time.
It is taught: they (the 24,000) all died between Pesach and Shavu’ot. (bavli, Yevamot 62b)
I have heard this story many times, but how could I not hear it differently this year as we begin to allow ourselves to hope—might this pandemic soon be behind us? I will leave for another day the Talmud’s attempt to give a moralizing explanation for the staggering number of deaths. The pain itself comes through clearly regardless of explanations—“the world was left desolate . . . . ”
I am struck by the choice to tell the story through the prism of one person—Rabbi Akiva. In this story he was not one of those who developed a new hobby in quarantine. He was one of those who lost everything. Twenty-four thousand deaths and each one was personal. A lifetime dedicated to sharing Torah, to creating another generation in which Torah can live and continue, and it is all wiped out. The world was left desolate . . . .
There is tremendous hope and resilience in the following sentence, in which he starts over again with five new students, but if we are to honor that hope, we must acknowledge the crushing feelings of despair and futility that this hope shines through.
I am reminded of a poem by the Israeli poet Yonah Wallach, of blessed memory, to whom I must apologize for this quick and rough translation:
And there was nothing I could do with it
can you hear, nothing
I could do, it was in my hands
And there was nothing I could do with it.
I couldn’t do anything with it
Can you hear, I could stammer
A-a-and what I wanted to say
I could feel the worst possible
(You are about to solve a complicated problem,
You will give the correct answer,
It is the final exam, and suddenly you)
stand there like a little child with a bib around your neck
And say a-and . . . you repeat the question . . .
What did you do with it they ask, where,
you threw it all away, you had a chance,
and now you will have to start all over again.
(Yonah Wallach, Subconsciousness Opening Like a Fan, p. 75)
So many of us lost loved ones and friends.
So many lost jobs and sources of livelihood.
So many plans and projects and dreams that had so much invested in them ended abruptly or painfully faded away.
Do you have the strength to start all over again?
The Omer tells a deceptively simple story. Once you get out of Egypt, put one foot in front of the other and step after step will bring you to the mountain top.
The story of the 33rd day of the Omer is a story of a person who did that, who made real progress only to see it all collapse, and then found the spiritual fortitude to start all over again.
Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimeon, and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. Another new beginning.
May we all connect to the joy of the 33rd day of the Omer, and may it seep into our own lives and nourish the seeds of courage that we need in order to start over again.
From Karen Marker
In the month of blossoming
At that well of bitter waters
after all the wandering, the unbearable thirst
and drought and fear of drowning
after all the disease
it happens, just like they said
it had when Moses cast in the tree
and there comes from this a glorious day
of miraculous sweetness.
Our escape from captivity
is a blossoming
of wings heading upwards
a quenching and glowing
the crossing of paths with a billion birds
in flight on an exodus journey
heading west and north, south and east
going towards light
and landing by the edge of the river.
This is the healing:
our counting off each day
of travel that makes us smarter
braver, purified by gratitude, in love
with manna like smiles that fall upon us
from the skies, and how little it takes
to settle in somewhere
other than where we began
again in the company of others
who dared as we did to start over,
to come closer.
From Reb Sholom Brodt
I hope that everyone is having a joyous and wonderful Pesach. Since this Shabbos is within the holiday of Pesach we will not read the regular Parshat Hashavuah; instead we will be reading a passage from sefer Shmot [32:12-23] that relates to Pesach. For ‘maftir’ we will read, in a 2nd sefer Torah, the portion in Bamidbar [28:19-25] about the special Pesach sacrifices.
This Shabbos we read the beautiful prophecy given to Yechezkel [Ezekiel 37] about the revival of the dry bones.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and the LORD carried me out in a spirit, and set me down in the midst of the valley, and it was full of bones …. they were very dry. And He said unto me: ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered: ‘O Lord GOD, Thou knowest.’ Then He said unto me: ‘Prophesy over these bones, and say unto them: O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD: Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD.’
On Pesach we celebrate the gift of freedom and renewal of life. May we be blessed to be new every day.
In the Torah we learn the mitzvah of the Counting of the Omer in the following verses:
And you shall count unto yourselves, from the morrow of the day of rest, from the day you brought the ‘omer’ [sheaf] of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete.
Even unto the morrow after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days; and you shall present a new meal offering to Hashem. Vayikra 23: 15-16
REB SHLOMO zt”l on the relationship between Pesach when we celebrate our FREEDOM and SFIRAT HA-OMER – the COUNTING OF THE OMER
“You know my darling friends, freedom is a gift from heaven. If you would like to know who has the gift it’s very simple, it’s very simple. If someone says ‘I’m demanding freedom for myself’ this is not G-d’s freedom. But if someone walks the streets of the world, and he would like to see every human being free, this is G-d’s freedom. So on Pesach G-d gave us freedom, but not freedom to do what we want to do, not freedom to use dirty words, not freedom to push someone away. Free to walk to Mount Sinai, free to hear the word of G-d. Free to love the whole world, free to bring peace to the world.
And you know my darling friends; it’s a holy law, holy tradition, holy custom, that from Pesach till Shavuot you count the days. Because a slave does not count his days, a free person learns to count. A holy person counts his days, his blessings to people.
You know that some people say there is a world; [but] G-d never said love the world, G-d said love the person who is standing next to you. ‘Count’ the people; ‘count’ the people you see.”
Reb Shlomo zt”l. Los Angeles/ 1972
As is already familiar to us, Shavuot comes seven weeks after Pessach. More precisely starting on the second night of Pessach we count 49 days, and the fiftieth day is Shavuot; unlike the other holidays there is no stated calendar date for Shavuot in the Torah. In these verses we learn that it is a mitzvah to count each day and each week of the seven weeks of the Omer counting. The counting begins on the second day [night] of Pessach. On that day, in Temple times, we would bring an ‘omer’ measurement of the new barley crop, as a wave offering in the Beit Hamikdash. [A wave offering was offered as follows: the Kohen would stand in front of the Altar and lift/wave the ‘omer’ of barley in all six directions]. After we fully completed the counting of the seven weeks, we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, [‘Shavuot’ means ‘weeks’] on the 50th day, with offering the “Mincha chadasha” the ‘new meal offering’ with two loaves of bread made of the new grain. We also brought the first fruits to the temple on this holiday. Shavuot is also the holiday of the “giving of the Torah”.
All the commentators point to a number of peculiarities in this text:
a] This mitzvah of ‘counting’ is quite unusual! What is it all about?
b] The Torah connects the counting with the wave offering of the ‘omer’ of barley and with the ‘new meal offering’ in the form of two breads.
c] The Torah does tell us the date for the beginning of the counting period… it simply tells to begin on the second day of Pessach, the day we offer the ‘omer of the uplifting’ of the barley.
d] The Torah does not tell us the date for Shavuot; rather we are only told that it is on the 50th day.
The Netivot Shalom brings a number of Chassidic teachings to explain some of the above. Briefly summarized, he explains that first we need to understand that this period of the counting of the Omer is given to us a time for spiritual self-purification. The seven weeks correspond to the seven ‘sfirot’, the seven emotional attributes. These are:
Chesed – Lovingkindness;
Gevurah – Justice and discipline;
Tiferet – Harmony, compassion;
Netzach – Endurance;
Hod – Humility;
Yesod – Bonding;
Malchut – Sovereignty, leadership.
In addition each day of each week corresponds to a particular ‘sfira’. The ‘sfirot’ represent our spiritual and psychological attributes. During this period of counting the Omer we work on refining these attributes on a personal level.
Why do we do this particularly at this time of the year? We have learned that on the night of Pessach when we were redeemed from Mitzrayim, Hashem revealed to us a great Divine light and then He hid it again. This was a foretaste of the great Revelation that we were going to experience at Sinai when Hashem was going to give us the Torah.
To receive this great light and to retain it in a permanent way we would have to prepare ourselves by refining our vessels. On the Night of Pessach it was given to us from above; it was a Divine free gift, given for just a short while, just long enough to inform us of our higher soul-selves, long enough to create a strong yearning to be forever close with Hashem, to forever live together with Hashem in our daily lives.
-Pessach is compared to our getting engaged to Hashem.
-The seven weeks of counting is our preparation period.
-Shavuot is the marriage, the union of Hashem with the people of Israel.
-The wave offering of the ‘omer of barley’ as well as the wave offering of the ‘new meal’ and the offering of first-fruits, demonstrated our belief and trust in Hashem, that all that we have comes from Hashem and only from Hashem, that it all belongs to Him alone. This represents the relinquishing of our attachments to material wealth, and nullifying our egotistical selves in readiness ‘to be in complete union’ with Hashem.
-The ‘Mincha chadasha’ – the gift of newness – is our gift of newness to Hashem, our readiness to be, to live anew and fresh every day with vitality and vigor, to live better and higher each day.
From Rabbi Diane Elliot
The Thirty-Third Day
[L’ag B’Omer is the thirty-third day of the Omer, the seven-week period between the holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot. In ancient times, this was a period devoted to offering the first fruits of the winter barley crop (an omer measure of grain), while the priest counted the days and offered prayers to ensure the abundance of the summer wheat crop. The Sages identified the weeks of the Omer with the journey of the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt to the foot of Mt. Sinai, where they received Divine revelation. In later times, mystics devoted themselves to spiritual refinement during the time of counting the Omer, using the qualities of the seven lower sefirot or Divine emanations of the kabbalistic Tree of Life to prepare for the receiving Torah anew each year. The Talmud teaches that the first thirty-two days of this seven-week period are a time of mourning, in remembrance of the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva who died then. The qualities of Divine emanation associated with the thirty-third day are hod sheh’b’hod, the humility within splendor, the splendor that unfolds only through surrender.]
They died in droves
twelve thousand pairs of them,
so they say—
died of contagious disrespect,
these zealous students,
Rabbi Akiva’s boys.
Study buddies run amok,
they sank into backbiting
mud-slinging, one upsmanship;
arguing not for the sake of heaven
but on their own behalf.
Twenty-four thousand politicians of the soul,
ruthless competitors in
the marketplace of spirit,
forgot the untold grace
of paradox, the beauty of
elu v’elu, that these and also these
are the Living words.
It brought a plague upon their heads,
or so the pundits said—
a plague that fell upon them
like poisoned rain,
(and whom have I lately dissed,
labeled “lesser than,”
in my mad rush up the mountain?),
until the thirty-third day
when the dying stopped, abruptly,
so they say,
on the same date that,
some years later,
the great bar Yokhai,
khai, khai, bar Yokhai
Rabban Shimon bar Yokhai,
Akiva’s brilliant student,
who came to him after the plague,
departed this world, prophet-like,
in a fiery chariot, luminous,
ecstatic as a bridegroom.
On this day of hod sheh’b’hod
this day of splendrous surrender,
mass dying stopped,
and the true death,
the mystical merging,
as it is taught:
“Your term of exile is completed,”
Exhale! Go get a shave!
Go home and marry
your high school sweetheart!
She who has tended your garden,
go sit in her shade
like the spreading shadow
of a lush fig tree,
and count your blessings.
And what do we know
of those sweethearts,
the mothers, sisters, solitary brides,
waiting, patiently (or not),
for these twenty-four thousand
who would never return,
sitting in courtyards
or before humble hovels,
crushing grain into flour
on their grinding stones,
baking bread in clay ovens,
spinning flax threads and wool threads
day by day, making their own
doing the unsung work,
waiting eagerly (or not)
to greet their young men—
each son, each brother,
not knowing they
have died in the wars of
othering, of besting,
of putting down—
not knowing they
did not live
to fight another day?
surrender to the splendor!
Light a bonfire
on the hillside of your heart,
in the forest of your mind!
Burn through the fakery,
that passes for
that call themselves “eternal.”
Soften stiff hips, aching knees,
as you sink into the deepest bow,
allying hips and legs
with heart and belly.
Groan with the earth,
sigh with the tides,
wave with the sheaves,
let pride and greed evaporate
and rise to cloud,
then fall as rain,
a healing rain
of humble blessing.
––Rabbi Diane Elliot
* with thanks to poet Susan Windle for the phrase, “the splendor of surrender”
©Diane Elliot 2020
Rabbi Pinchas Giller
Passover has many stressful aspects to the average Jew. The cleaning, coordinating the Seder, family dynamics, travel and time constraints all combine to create a time that is, for the average householder, definitely anxiety producing. In fact, one is often confronted by a paradox, namely: how is such a central and beautific practice so often the source of such stress?
In the mystical rendering, the Passover season was bound to be a source of stress, because the season, metaphysically, is nothing if not a “flight” in itself. The commandments of the Torah, for the Jewish mystic, are not frozen in time or only appropriate as events in the past. The Exodus did not just happen once but, in metaphysical terms, it continues to occur. We are all escaping, if only from the Winter. Passover, then, begins a flight from the forces of impurity, which is then followed by a seven-week process of purification, ending with the holiday of Shavuot, or Pentecost.
According to the Zohar, certain aspects of the Passover observance point to the unfinished quality of the holiday. The Zohar taught that the first days of Passover constitute a spiritual redemption that liberates God’s earthly presence, the Shekhinah, from the cosmic “Egypt.” Since the Passover seder is only the beginning of the process of redemption, it is haunted by images of unfinished and broken things. The broken Matzah on the Passover table, the characterization of the matzah as lechem ‘oni , “bread of poverty,” the spilling of wine at the Passover Seder and the incomplete Hallel prayer following the first day of the festival all signify that the emergence from Winter has not come without some wounds and bruises,
The mitzvah of counting of the Omer consists of marking each of the days between the Passover and Shavuot holidays with a special ritual. These were the days of the gathering of the first wheat in the time of the Jerusalem Temple. The counting of the Omer is a popular kabbalistic ritual that has persisted among Jews who pray according to the orthodox and Hasidic rites. Most Jews simply count off the days every evening, but the kabbalistic understanding linked the act of counting to an underling spiritual process. The forty-nine days of the Omer purify God’s earthly presence from what amounts to the defilement of her sojourn in Egypt. The presence is restored to God at the holiday of Shavuot, at the end of the counting of the Omer, at which point the Torah is given as a wedding gift.
The most widespread kabbalistic meditation for the counting of the Omer links each day of the Omer to a particular confluence of mystical energies. The forty nine days of the Omer are devoted to the repair of any flaws committed in the lower recesses of spiritual reality. The most widely circulated version of the ritual may be found in a number of popular prayer books as follows:
Master of the Universe, you commanded us through your servant Moses to count the Omer in order to purify ourselves from our obstructions and our impurities, as you have written in our Torah…in order to purify the souls of Your people Israel from their impurity, Thus may it be thy will, our God and god of our fathers, that in the merit of the counting of the Omer that I counted today, that whatever I have blemished will be restored… and I will be purified and I will be sanctified in the Holiness of Above, and through this will flow a Divine effluence through all the worlds to repair our physical souls (nafshoteinu) and spirits (ruhoteinu) and highest souls (nishmoteinu) from every blemish and to purify us and sanctify us with you highest holiness, Amen Sela.
Therefore, let this season that lies before us be one of healing and repair, that the wounds and misfortunes of the past year be healed and that we greet a new Spring, of hope and renewal!
Sources: Tiqqunei ha-Zohar 19b, 28b, 56a; Hayyim Vital Peri Etz Hayyim: Festival of Matzot 3, 7, TZ 28b; Zohar II 182b , Hsyyim Vital Sha’ar ha- Kavvanot (Jerusalem p. 84) , Shalom Shar’abi (Nahar Shalom 35b, 35d). Shmuel Vital, Siddur Hemdat Yisrael 207b.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Message of barley offering Omer
Nothing too lowly
Nothing too inflexible
That cannot be moved and lifted
Transformed and turned To-ward.
Nothing too lowly that cannot
Be moved Toward and By and Up.
Message of the Omer period
Giving over to lifted up
With everything we have
Lowliest to the loftiest.
Morid Hatal — Seeing the Small Things
A teaching from Reb Shlomo
In the Amidah prayer everyday we say:
You are mighty forever Lord. You bring the dead back to life with abundant salvation.
In the winter we add: Mashiv haruah umorid hageshem. — You blow the wind and bring down the rain.
In the summer, starting with Pesach, we change this to Morid hatal. — You bring down the dew.
In 1968 in the House of Love and Prayer, Reb Shlomo gave over a teaching on Morid Hatal. It went something like this:
We all feel “dead” sometimes — sad, discouraged, hopeless. But our prayers remind us that G-d’s presence can always bring us back to life. Sometimes we experience G-d’s presence like wind and rain. Strong and dramatic. Big events that change our lives. Other times it’s like “dew“. Subtle, gentle. We might not notice the dew if we’re not paying attention. In the winter, we’re tuning in to the experience of wind and rain. In the summer, we’re tuning into the experience of dew. The level of dew is to notice the small things, and the small signals, that are all around us. And to experience G-d in all of it.
This is about counting the Omer
Torah Reading for Week of April 29 – May 5, 2018
By Rabbi Elisheva Beyer, ’06
“You shall count for yourselves – from the day after the day of rest, from the day when you bring the omer of the waving – seven weeks, they shall be complete. Until the day after unto the seventh week you shall count, fifty days; and you shall offer a new meal-offering to G-d.” Lev. 23:15-16, Parshat Emor.
According to Torah and our Sages, we are to count the forty-nine days from the second day of Passover (a “rest” day) until Shavuot. In ancient times, the counting was the time period between when the new crop of barley was offered on the altar on the second day of Passover until when two loaves of wheat bread were offered seven weeks later. The specific amount of barley brought was about two quarts, called an “omer.” Until the Omer offering is brought to the altar, any grain planted within the past year (from the 16th of Nissan) could not be eaten.
This time period has been refocused by our Sages to a time for meaningful opportunity to grow our souls. As with everything in Torah, layers of deep spiritual meaning are infused into it. Let’s take a look at some of the layers and what they meanings. Passover is the time of leaving Egypt (Mitzra’im, in Hebrew, meaning narrow places) where we were slaves. When we leave there, we must let go of our chametz, metaphorically identified as ego, and also signified by the barley offering. In the eyes of the ancients, barley was seen as more of an animal food, rather than wheat which was considered more appropriate for humans. Our ego is considered to be our animalistic nature – the selfish desires to do what is only best for ourselves. We need to let go of completely selfish desires in order to grow spiritually. Thus, our barley offering (animal-nature) is put on G-d’s altar. Then we begin transforming ourselves until the time when we can become a partner with the Holy One. In this instance, the partnership is literally shown in the process of making wheat into bread and coincides with receiving Torah.
Omer (עמר a measurement of barley) and yakar (יקר meaning precious) have the same gematria (the letters add up to the same numbers). Thus, according to our Sages, this seven week time period is to be treasured. Within it, we have an opportunity to accelerate our spiritual growth. Following the guidance of our Sages, during the Omer, we focus on various personality traits, as noted in kabbalistic texts. On each of the forty-nine days of Sefirat HaOmer (“Counting of the Omer”), we refine, develop and illuminate another aspect of our soul. Each day of the sefirah has a specific facet of our personality for us to examine. It is designed as a time to refine our emotions, rather than being driven by them. In this way, we prepare ourselves to receive Torah on Shavuot.
According to R’ DovBer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, sefirah, “counting,” also means “illumination.” These forty-nine days are a bridge between the slavery of Egypt and Shavuot, a time when we are able to forge a contract with G-d and receive Torah. Shavuot is the fiftieth day and the time of receiving Torah: the time when we receive G-d’s blueprint for how to live our lives.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
April 20th, 2011
today is day __ of the Omer
From the second day of Passover
fiftieth day –
the time of our transformation.
Levi Yitzchak asked me:
When does freedom begin?
We search our stories.
During the Omer period
we are preparing ourselves for the wedding
for the durable wisdom
the gift of a guidebook.
A barley offering –
nothing too lowly
too inflexible that cannot be moved
lifted and transformed –
Nothing too lowly that
cannot be moved towards G*d
Today I am a vessel
a working out of potencies
I am a daily ______
within a week of ______
Work me, O holy G*d
You have my atten-
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.
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 Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
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.
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
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.
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 Rav DovBer Pinson
Counting the Omer: Unifying our Internal Reality
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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.
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?
From Ritual Well
Resources for Counting the Omer
From Kol Aleph
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.
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
From Rabbi David Seidenberg
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 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.
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 Rabbi David Ingber
Counting the Omer: Ending the Beginning
Resources on the Days of the Omer from
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.
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 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.
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