Thursday, April 16, 2009
Counting up and counting down
Passover is over; today I ate my first pasta and bread. It was yummy. There's actually a new bread store in my neighborhood that had its grand opening last night when the holiday ended here. Very smart marketing and a move that only makes sense in a neighborhood like mine where most of the folks living here haven't been eating bread for a week. I went in today and picked out a loaf by passing my hand over the bags of bread until I found the shelf where the loaves were still warm!
With the second night of Passover, we start counting the Omer --the period between Passover and Shavuot, the next festival in the year cycle. The counting itself is commanded in Leviticus and marks the time between the offering of the first fruits of the new harvest (in this case represented by barley) until the offering of the first wheat of the new season. It's 50 days which is a week of weeks plus one. Counting the Omer literally means that when night falls (and the new day begins in the Jewish calendar) we say the blessing that accompanies commanded actions and then state, "Today is the X day of the Omer."
Not surprisingly, people have wanted to bring/find other meanings in this ritual. One common way of finding our way through this time is to use the 7 x7 format (seven weeks of seven days) as a way of contemplating in turn each combination of the seven lower sefirot. (Sefirot are Divine aspects or symbol clusters as my teacher Art Green prefers and explains very clearly in his Introduction to the Zohar.) In more recent understandings (e.g., in the shift from Lurianic Kabbalah to Hassidism), these sefirot can be understood psychologically, as different aspects of our own selves. In this way of seeing them, חסד/hesed/lovingkindness, unbounded love is about my own capacity for lovingkindness rather than a focus solely on Divine love. The seven lower sefirot move from חסד/hesed/lovingkindness through גבורה/g'vurah/strength, judgment, boundedness all the way down to מלכות/malkhut/immanence, gateway to reality (literally "kingdom").
By focusing on these sefirot in counting the Omer, we have the opportunity to use this practice to examine our own attributes. For example, the first week we would focus on חסד/hesed/love, lovingkindness. The first day we would focus on the חסד שבחסד/hesed she'b'hesed/the lovingkindness of lovingkindness. We might ask a question like, "Who am I when I am truly in this place of the very heart of love? Are there ways in which I have forgotten or wounded this aspect of myself?" The second day would be גבורה שבחסד/g'vurah she'b'hesed/the boundedness of love. We might focus on our own boundaries around love, "Is the gate through which my love flows too open or too closed?" Because the sefirot are symbol clusters, each one has many different associations and shades of meaning. Rather than fixating on a set meaning for each word, counting the Omer this way is meant to give us a chance to think about all of our attributes and all of the combinations of these attributes with one another and to check in on how our inner workings are working, for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our work in the world.
Some years I have spent more time with this practice than others (sometimes keeping a journal or taking some time to reflect each day). This year, I am enjoying counting the Omer each night with Alan (last year we made it all the way to 50 without missing a day!) and letting the practice mostly just be itself. I do hope I'll remember to look for an "Omer counter" while I'm here in Israel --it's a ritual object of various shapes, sizes, and constructions that's meant to help keep you on track in your counting. The one pictured above was designed by Amy Gilron. One of the few Christian ritual objects I was jealous of as a child was an Advent Calendar. An Omer counter with little windows and chocolate...sounds good to me. Click here for an online version that is always amusing.
This also marks a time when I am starting to count down to my return to the U.S. Now that both Alan and springtime have arrived, I am less eager to get out of here than I have been at other times this year. But I am still pretty eager to be back on more familiar shores and most especially to be back working, to be back in settings in which I feel more consistently competent, valued, and put to good use!
At the same time, this counting down (I'll be home before the end of the Omer, God willing) allows me to focus on those aspects of being here which I truly savor. As I count the days of the new harvest as my ancestors did, I hope to be able to use this space to celebrate the harvest that this year has brought me --sweet, tart, and otherwise.