Make Your Counting Count

Rabbi Shaya Deitsch. Photo: Twitter

By Rabbi Shaya Deitsch

While you were on your way to the polls or at home in protest or apathy for last week’s primary midterm elections, did the inevitable thought creep up on you: “Why do I even bother? Does one vote even matter?” Spiraling further into self-depreciation, you may have even compared yourself to the “big decision makers” and questioned your right to have a say at all: “Who am I to have an opinion?”

True, our democracy gives us this right to vote, but beyond this right, does it really count for anything?

As we think about counting, and whether our counting—well, counts—it may have thematically dawned on us that we have just finished counting down the Omer, the tradition of counting the days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot.  Daily, we verbally counted as a community and as individuals—one day of the Omer, two days and so forth for the last 49-days.

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49 Days of Jewish Spiritual Practice

The Omer comprises 49 days, paralleling the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, which in Torah comes the day after Passover begins, and ends with receiving Torah on Shavuot.

Originally, the omer was the measure of wheat brought as a donation of harvest gratitude to feed the Temple workers in ancient Israel. As our need for renewal of spirit builds in these troubling times, the Jewish spiritual renaissance continues unabated.

Kabbalists have developed a powerful spiritual practice for Sephirat HaOmer, Counting of the Omer through pairing it with a practice drawn from the intersection of authentic Kabbalah that accords with contemporary psychology and spiritual development.

The Kabbalists’ Omer practice is done based on a seven-week grid of seven of the ten qualities of what they called the Eitz Chayyim, the Tree of Life. The Tree is a mind map, a model, a metaphor for the source of life, and the mystery of the source of life manifesting as all that is apparent to us, including who we are and who we are becoming.

Three of the highest aspects, sephirot of the tree are not directly attainable. We can only conceive of them and at times experience the grace of the dimensions known as keter, “crown,” chochmah, “wisdom,” and binah, “understanding.” Refining the seven attainable aspects by combining them with each other and contemplating the new pair for each day is a powerful spiritual practice.

Omer Calendar for 2015 updated 4 14 15_Page_1

The practice transforms the 49 days into a very accessible spiritual journey that I highly recommend.

Many bloggers have taken up posting on the Kabbalists’ practice. For example, here is an excerpt from my daily omer blog on this practice for Day One of Forty-nine:

Walking in today’s omer state of consciousness, Lovingkindness within Lovingkindness, in Hebrew chessed sheh b’chessed, my sweet Hubbatzin Barry came upon a street sweeper pausing to help a very shaky homeless person write a sign asking for spare change.

Before the sun sets today there is still time for this Day One Omer practice — imagine being surrounded by more loving kindness than you have ever known, now allow yourself to fill with this glory, and express a prayer for this experience to untie your tangles, the ana b’koakh. Become radiant with this Love Song, know everything that lives is singing it, today, now, to you, each to all. Walk in the world, go out in this consciousness. Today has been Day One of the Omer.

My teacher, Rabbi Zalman, Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, was certain that if all of us would undertake the innovative contemplative Omer path of the Kabbalists, that we would form a collective consciousness that would afford us the experience of synesthesia reported in the Torah.

All the people saw the sounds and the flashes, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking… (Exodus 20:14)

Reb Zalman hoped that from that precious point of consciousness, the metaphorical return to Sinai intended by Shavuot, we might bring down the needed new dimensions of Torah that can only be perceived as humans continue to evolve in the wilderness of our lives and times. So every year of our maturation as individuals, a people, and as a species, this is a valuable practice for the impact on our personal and collective lives.

A list of some of the many omer bloggers has been posted by ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, a consortium of Jews from across the spectrum of Jewish life dedicated to the study and practice of Jewish life through the lens of serious scholarship and engaged spirituality.

Counting the Omer: A Modern Revival of an Ancient Jewish Practice

Omer calendars for Israel and Diaspora courtesy of Judaica artist Jonathan Kremer.

— by Carol Towarnicky

As Passover approaches, an increasing number of modern Jews are preparing not only for their annual seders but also for “Counting the Omer,” an ancient practice of blessing each of the 49 days between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.

An Omer is a measure of barley. In Biblical times, the Counting of the Omer marked the time between the barley and wheat harvests. Every night during that period, farmers would wave an Omer to plead for an abundant crop. Over time, the agricultural ritual was replaced by liturgy, and the counting became a way to mark the Israelites’ journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai. For the Kabbalists, the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Counting of the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing, a way to prepare the soul for revelation. The mystics divided the time into seven weeks, with each week containing a specific spiritual quality. On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other, making each day is unique.  

After the jump: Rabbi Yael Levy’s book on the subject
Rabbi Yael Levy, founder of A Way In, a Jewish Mindfulness Center based in Philadelphia and author of Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer (Volume 1), has re-imagined the counting as a Mindfulness practice: paying attention not only to each day as it passes but also to the individual spiritual qualities that were assigned to it by the 16th century Jewish mystics.

“The counting helps us to pay attention to the movement of our lives,” says Rabbi Levy. “Counting the Omer helps us notice the subtle shifts in our lives, the big changes, all the yearnings, strivings, disappointments, hopes and fears.”

Journey Through the Wilderness is available in paperback through Amazon, and as an e-book via Smashwords and other e-booksellers. The publication includes daily blessings in both Hebrew and English and teachings and intentions for each day.

A Way In is also offering a range of online and social media support for individuals who wish to count the Omer, including free daily emails, blog entries and Facebook posts and insightful Twitter messages and reminders.

Rabbi Levy has been exploring the Mindfulness potential of Counting the Omer for more than a decade, in particular during time she spends each year backpacking alone in the red rock desert of southern Utah. She also leads an annual five-day retreat at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, that takes place at the end of the Omer 49-day period.  

Rabbi Levy points out that the Hebrew word for “desert wilderness” — midbar — is written the same as the word for “speaks” — medaber. “The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations and allow ourselves to go into the unknown, to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit, we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance.”  

A relatively new development in Judaism, Jewish Mindfulness combines meditation, movement and spiritual practice that draws on Jewish text and tradition. As part of A Way In, Rabbi Levy leads twice-monthly contemplative Shabbat services, weekly meditation “sits,” retreats, classes and individual and group spiritual direction, plus an online community.  

A Way In Jewish Mindfulness program grew out of Rabbi Levy's work at Mishkan Shalom congregation, a Reconstructionist synagogue in the Roxborough section of Philadelphia where Rabbi Levy has been associated for 19 years. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Levy has co-led retreats in Alaska for Jewish professionals through the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She is also a spiritual director to rabbinical students in both the Reconstructionist and Reform movements and in private practice.