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March 2007
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How to count my days

Help me understand how to count my days
How to embrace my life
That I may nourish a heart of wisdom

(from Psalm 90, rendered by Norman Fischer)

One of the things I love about the practice of counting the Omer is how it links Pesach with Shavuot, liberation with Torah, freedom-from and freedom-toward. I love how the practice literally involves counting our days. Making our days count.

In the kabbalistic imagination, the seven weeks of sefirat ha-Omer (counting the Omer) match up with seven divine and personal attributes. And within each week, too, the seven attributes appear. The qualities are chesed (lovingkindness); gevurah (justice and discipline); tiferet (harmony, compassion); netzach (endurance); hod (humility); yesod (bonding); and malchut (sovereignty, leadership). Imagine a grid, with the same seven qualities across the top and across the side; each day is an intersection-point between those two qualities.

I have a little book by Rabbi Simon Jacobson called A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer, which offers one page for each day. You can find some of those teachings distilled online in Counting the Omer: Week One, which explores the resonance of the seven-by-seven grid and offers kavvanot, intentions or understandings, for each of the days of the first week.

Today -- week one; day two -- is the day of gevurah in chesed, discipline in lovingkindness. "Healthy love must always include an element of discipline and discernment; a degree of distance and respect for the other," Rabbi Jacobson writes. And, later, "Rain is a blessing only because it falls in drops that don't flood the fields." The exercise he suggests for today is to help others on their terms -- not on mine.

That sounds simple, but I know it's not. How often I want to show love for someone by offering the help I myself need! And maybe I imagine it's the help they need, but I don't ask them what they're actually looking for because I'm so certain that the gift I'm offering is right. My intentions may be loving, but if I allow my love to overflow, or if I push a kind of love on someone that isn't actually what they want or need, then that love is misguided.

A lot to think about today. How discipline interacts, and intersects, with lovingkindness. How structure shapes fluidity. And also how it feels to be on, and in, the second day of the Omer -- two little steps toward the timeless connection we made with the Infinite at Sinai. Already we're leaving Egypt behind, and leaving the first nights of Pesach behind, moving into the desert and the wisdom we hope to reach.

Online tools for enhancing your sefirah: I've already mentioned the JRF's online Omer count / study group. It's also noteworthy that BZ of Mah Rabu is counting the Omer at Jewschool this year, and plans to work through all 613 mitzvot during these 49 days. He's posting roughly 15 each day, and opening up the doors to discussion of the mitzvot and what they mean to us. The first post is here.

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Zionism and anti-Semitism in the new Zeek

This month's edition of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture is online, and it's unsurprisingly terrific.

Probably the most provocative piece in the issue is Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Boundaries of Dissent: Round 2 of the Alvin Rosenfeld Debate, a discussion between Shaul Magid and Paul Bogdanor. This three-part essay -- by Magid, then Bogdanor, then Magid again -- is intense, and illuminates just how spectacularly the Jewish Left and Jewish Right are talking past each other on this issue.

A quote from Magid, in the first section of the piece:

Ironically, both sides agree that Israel stands at the center of [the rise of anti-Semitism.] Rosenfeld posits that progressive critiques of the Jewish state "foment," perhaps tacitly legitimize, anti-Semitism. Many progressives believe that it is Israel, both in its policies and "ethnic" construction, that foments anti-Semitism. What we need now are fewer jeremiads, and more thoughtful and constructive engagement on both Jewish history and the nature of a Jewish future.

This tripartite essay may make you sad and angry regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, but I think that's part of why it's worth reading.

And while you're there, of course, read the rest of the issue too. My own personal highlight is The Exile and the Shank: two poems by Philip Terman. Holy wow.

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Sacred spaces

The cover of the March 2007 issue of the Williams College Alumni Review (not yet online, so I can't link to it -- sorry) caught my eye as soon as I picked it up at the post office this morning. It shows a young man holding up a Torah scroll. The photo is taken from behind, so we see the embroidered bracha (blessing) on the collar of his tallit, and on his head, a purple-and-gold kippah emblazoned with a purple cow. (If your seder left you wondering what makes this week different from all other weeks, one answer may be that Ethan and I are both making posts suitable for EphBlog...)

Anyway, the Alumni Review cover story is titled "Space for the soul," and features several short student responses to the question of where they go "to search for truth beyond the classroom, to pursue the intangible, nonmaterial good, to center themselves and widen their frames of reference." The range of answers makes me happy. There are vignettes about the practice rooms in the music building, about the art building and the dance studio, about working in the greater northern Berkshire community, and about the glorious outdoors.

And, of course, there are pieces about spaces which are explicitly religious. One student writes about singing in the gospel choir; another, about walking the contemplative labyrinth the college sets up in the First Congregational Church ("Whatever happens, I think I wind up someplace better than where I started.") And there are pieces about the Newman room, the Muslim prayer room, a progressive Christian gathering called the Feast, and the Jewish Religious Center.

Reading the article, I find myself thinking about the many sacred spaces I found as an undergraduate. The JRC was one of them (both the place, and the community which inhabited it.) So were the stairwell at Thompson Memorial Chapel and the atrium at the college museum of art (where one of my poems currently hangs, and where I'll be reading in a few weeks), because I remember singing sacred music there (with the Elizabethans) and feeling holiness reverberating in the soaring of our joined voices. Classrooms were sacred space sometimes, too -- there were definitely holy sparks when Jacob Meskin or Thandeka was at the front of the room!

And now I'm thinking about sacred spaces in my current life. My shul, of course. Elat Chayyim. The coffee shop where I meet with friends for hevruta (and also where I meet with friends simply for socializing and connecting.) Several of the rooms in our house, breakfast nook and hot tub room especially. The woods and the hills. The hospital where I worked last year. Really, as I think about it, what places aren't sacred, if we walk them mindfully and meet one another fully there?

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Pre-Pesach roundup

The matzah balls are made. (They turned out light and fluffy, just like Eppie's, may his memory be a blessing.) The hunter chicken is simmering in the pot. The table is set with the embroidered tablecloth two Russian friends gave me years ago at Pesach-time, our blue-and-white china, and my mother's silver. The holiday is only hours away!

There's very little blogging time for me today, so this post will be brief. Here are three terrific Pesach posts, to help get you in the mood:

  • What Pesach Means, by DovBear. He quotes extensively from Bernard Henri-Levi's essay on baseball and authenticity, and links it with the Pesach story. Made me a little bit teary, in that baseball-fan way.

  • The tension between law and redemption on Passover by Rabbi Shai Gluskin. About the seder, messianism, subverting the status quo, liberation, and change.

  • Hametz, matzah, and liberation, by Rabbi Jill Jacobs. About the nature of hametz and matzah, what distinguishes them, and what they represent.

  • Pesach on the farm by Rabbi Shmuel. Sugaring season, farm life, composting seder scraps -- this is granola-crunchy Judaism at its best. (Urbanites, it's a good enough post that you should read it, too.)

Wishing you all a sweet, joyful, and meaningful Pesach! May we all find surprises and serendipity on the road to liberation.

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