Managing Life’s Transitions Is Like Counting the Omer

— by Aviva Perlo

Imagine that you are walking through the desert for 40 years. Day after day, week after week. You and 20,000 of your closest friends and tribe’s members move through the wilderness, in hopes for a better life.

You get hot, and then cold, and then hungry, and then tired. Shelter comes and goes. Everything appears to be wide open. The uncertainty of the wilderness seems disorienting, yet exhilarating. To restore some order and structure to the wide-open landscape, you — well, all 20,000 of you — try to build a holy space in the desert using specific measurements and materials, and lots of detail. “Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so, as though we were making the first step towards disaster,” explains English Professor Dr. William Bridges in his book “Transitions: Making sense of life’s Changes.”

More after the jump.
Vulnerable to environmental and situational conditions: desert storms, the winds, the sun, we start to doubt if we will ever get there, and we don’t even know where “there” is. After months of pitching a tent together, shlepping, hauling materials, and not reaching the goal, the people around you start to get on your nerves. Complaining and blaming seem tempting, because it’s easier than facing what is actually happening. Beneath the surface, massive changes are tugging at our hearts, as our identity, security and reality are being forced to change. Tension emerges as we wonder who we are, and where we are going.

This is the story of the Jewish people in the wilderness, as they prepared for revelation. This is also the narrative of what sometimes happens to individuals and families who undergo traumatic experiences of illness, injury and loss. Shift happens, and it’s not easy.

On the Jewish calendar, writes Jewish educator Dr. Erica Brown:

The transition time between leaving oppression [Passover] and arriving at the Promised Land [Shavuot] takes us to a desert that tests us and our leadership. That transition taught us a great deal about what it took to prepare and confront uncertainty, and how important vision is.

We count the Omer, or the wheat harvest, for 49 days. The Omer marks a major transition period for the Jewish people and for the earth. We are becoming a new people on a new ground, and letting go of our former identity and memories as slaves. The earth provides us with her bountiful harvest, which allows us to survive. Physically and psychically, we are tested.

Life also tests us. When tragedies, illnesses and accidents occur, our worldview morphs immediately. Its stability is shaken as reality turns upside down. We try to stop the suffering, but we can’t. The question emerges: what can we hold onto? What will help nurture and sustainin us? Dr. Brown explains that it is hard to “rebuild trust after authority breaks down,” yet it is possible.

The Omer offers three powerful lessons about life’s transitions:

  1. Go gradually — step by step, day by day. When traveling to new lands or trying out new lifestyles, go slowly. Make life manageable by breaking it down into smaller parts, especially amidst murky waters.
  2. Small steps count, and can be a source of blessing. Although grandiosity has its allure, short blessings enable us to get to the next day.
  3. Each step prepares us for what comes next. We cannot just jump from one big milestone to another. There is an invisible journey that we undergo in order to restore our energy and prepare for what may follow. Quiet time and a restful space are required. We cannot dictate the pace. We can cultivate support systems, count our blessings each day, and develop relationships with compassionate mentors and friends.

Transformative experiences involve a combination of pain, growth and wisdom. May we learn to mitigate the pain and be able to receive more of the fruits.

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.

Counting Your Way From Passover To Shavuot

Jonathan Kremer has designed a new Omer calendar for us this year.

Begin counting at the second seder and continue counting each night preceding the next day. (Yom tov and Shabbat begin the evening before the graphic.) Before you know it, it’ll be time to celebrate Shavuot!

Rabbi Jonathan Kremer studied at Jewish Theological Seminar following in the footsteps of his daughter Rabbi Aviva Fellman. Jonathan currently serves as rabbi for Beth Israel Congregation in Lexington Park, Maryland while Aviva serves as assistant rabbi at Oceanside Jewish Center in Oceanside, New York. The Forward has named Aviva as one of America’s 28 most inspiring rabbis this year.

See more of Jonathan’s art at www.jonathankremer.com.