April 04, 2010
Last year I didn't manage to count the Omer (that's the process of marking, and sanctifying, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation.) I had a good excuse for my distraction, but this year I'd like to do a better job of noticing the passage of time during this spiritually-rich season.
Because counting the Omer is considered one long mitzvah which lasts for 49 days, most halakhists argue that if one goes a whole night and day without counting, one can no longer say the blessing. So in years past, I've followed the practice of only making the bracha when I've managed an unbroken streak of Omer-counting. But I've known rabbis who teach otherwise, and this year I'm going to try a different practice.
One of the biggest lessons I'm learning from parenthood thus far is not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Our sleep schedule still isn't what I might wish for, and I can almost guarantee that at some point in these next 7 weeks, I will forget what day of the week it is! I'm living by the baby's rhythms, not so much by calendrical time. If I only offer the blessing when I have a perfect track record of remembering to do so, my Omer count is liable to be truncated and I run the risk of missing the spiritual gifts that even a partial Omer experience might bring.
I know that this is part of the argument given for why women have historically been considered exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot: our lives can't be strictly-regimented in the way that the classical understanding of the mitzvot requires, because we have to take the needs of our children into account. But I come from a paradigm in which women and men both choose the mindfulness practice of the mitzvot. (For that matter, I also come from a paradigm in which men and women share the workload of parenting.) I need to find a way to experience the holiness of the Omer count from where I'm at.
A popular kabbalistic teaching holds that during each of these seven weeks, we move through one of the seven lower sefirot (emanations or faces of God, each associated with a particular divine quality.) Each week, a different sefirah comes into focus, and each day of the week likewise. Because we are created in the image of God, each of these combinations of qualities exists in us, too. I think of the sefirot as a multi-sided prism refracting divine light; as white light contains all colors within it, so divinity contains all of these qualities, and the prism of counting the Omer allows us to isolate these subtle gradations across the spectrum.
I may not manage to bless each day, but I don't want that to be a reason not to count at all. Maybe there's a way to turn the "imperfection" of missing a night or two of counting into something positive. Each time I bring myself back to mindfulness of the Omer count again, I can ask myself: what is it about today's special combination of qualities that resonates with me? Is there something in today's combination of qualities which called me back to awareness? What can I learn from the experience of reawakening to the Omer count today?
One of my favorite texts from the first semester of Moadim l'Simcha ("Festivals of Our Rejoicing," a class I took last spring and this past fall) comes from the Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Shalom Noach Barzofsky. He offers the following parable:
The path of serving God is like a person being elevated to the summit of a high mountain, where one is shown all of the beautiful and splendor which is around one, and one can see what good is to be found there. After that, one descends down to the bottom, and from there one works to ascend to the summit again through one's own strength, because after one has seen how good and beautiful it is to be up there, one would certainly make an effort through one's own strength to ascend! Just so, the service of God on high: initially one experiences "arousal from above" [God reaches down to us and arouses our desire for God], so that one can see how good it is, one can get a taste for that goodness, and after that one is returned to one's place [e.g. the bottom of the mountain] in order to climb to the top again.
On the first night of Pesach, we're elevated to great spiritual heights -- like being whisked by God to the very top of a mountain. Then the next morning we waken and we're at the bottom again -- but because we've seen the amazing views from on high, we're motivated to do the work of slowly working toward the summit. Having seen the splendor at the top gives us the impetus to keep climbing, step by step.
It seems to me that making myself mindful of the qualities which God and we share -- lovingkindness, boundaried strength, harmony, and so on -- is worth doing even if I'm not able to live in the constant state of devekut (cleaving-to-God) to which I might aspire. And what's more: cultivating that mindfulness is one way my tradition offers me to climb toward connection with God.
My Omer count this year won't be perfect. But I'm still on a journey toward Shavuot, toward the spiritual high of receiving Torah at Sinai. I'm still climbing that mountain, even if I pause to nurse the baby along the way.
On a tachlis (nuts-and-bolts) level, I'm trying a couple of new things this year. I downloaded the Omer Counter iPhone app (find it, along with other resources, here at NeoHasid.org.) I'm also reading Counting the Omer, daily blog posts by my friend Rabbi Min Kantrowitz who recently wrote a book about the Omer count. We'll see whether these keep me on track.