Day 4 of the Omer



Where are we going now?
    To Sinai: not a place
        but a moment. Yank the lever

and whoop as we take off.
    You'll know we've arrived
        when you see a symphony

splashed across desert sky,
    clarion trumpets blazing.
        You've been there before.

It's okay if you've forgotten.
    It's not easy to tell a true story
        about who we've been together

much less parse a download
    that's so tightly compressed
        into a single silent letter.

All of time and space
    hiding in the white spaces
        of the parchment, the pause

between forever and ever.
    You were there. You saw
        the Voice, heard the invisible

and indivisible, tasted
    the scent of dust after rain.
        Walk through the open door.

The broadcast is still on,
    waiting for you to hear,
        O Israel, and remember.


Today (the day ending Wednesday at sundown) is the fourth day of the Omer, the fourth day of our journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from liberation to revelation.

The endpoint of the Omer journey is Shavuot, when we stand once again at Sinai. In my favorite understanding, we not only commemorate the revelation of Torah on that day: we re-experience it. Revelation is ongoing. We can still receive that broadcast, if only we attune ourselves to hear.

There's a midrash which holds that all of us were there at Sinai at the moment of revelation -- that every Jewish neshama (soul) which has ever been or will ever be was present together at that moment of connection and covenant.

What might it feel like to reach Shavuot and actually feel as though we had traveled through space and time to re-position ourselves in that holy place at that holy moment among this holy community?

In another 45 days when we make it all the way there, what revelation do you hope you might hear?

Day 3 of the Omer




Abraham was a softie:
tent open on all sides,
offering kisses on both cheeks.
Always handing out thimbles
of cardamom-scented coffee.

He listened to everyone
including his wife who said
get that woman's son out of here
including that Voice which said
take your son, your only son

whom you love. Anything
worth doing was worth overdoing.
The line between unchanneled love
and zealotry is thinner
than a hair resting on milk.


Isaac didn't overflow
like his father. He withdrew.
Bound to obedience, bound
to the sticks of wood he himself
had carried, bound to become

an entirely different man --
Isaac dug wells with precision,
rigid passages through which
life-giving waters might flow.
Isaac closed his eyes.

When his wife persuaded
their son to dress in sheepskin
and pretend, Isaac knew his role.
He stayed in-character.
He blessed and he wept.


Third generation integrates
old country and new,
Grandpa's ebullience
and Dad's severity.
Jacob balanced with angels

on the head of a pin.
He watched them climb
and descend, climb and descend
like the prayers we loft,
the answers we rarely hear.

He met his brother again
with trepidation.
He didn't expect to say
seeing your face
is like seeing the face of God.


Let your cup run over,
compassion spilling
like an endless fountain.
Trust the kindness of strangers.
Open the tent of your heart.

Know when to pull back,
how to accept the things
you cannot change.
How to yield with grace.
When to close your eyes.

Rest your head on the stones
and dream. When you wake, sing
God was in this place, and I --
I did not know. Receive the name
of who you will become.


Today (the day ending at sundown on Tuesday) is the third day of the Omer, the 49-day journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

One way of understanding the Omer journey is through the lens of the kabbalistic teaching that each week of the Omer, and each day within each week, correlates with a different divine quality. The first quality is chesed, lovingkindness. The second is gevurah, boundaried strength. The third is tiferet, harmony or balance. The tradition maps these qualities to the first three Biblical patriarchs, so Abraham manifested chesed; Isaac manifested gevurah; Jacob manifested tiferet.

According to that kabbalistic lens, today is the day of tiferet she'b'chesed, the day of balance within the week of lovingkindness.

What draws you, in these evocations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Where do you see yourself? What's familiar, and what's foreign to you? On this third day of the Omer, how can you manifest balance within abundant love?

Day 2 of the Omer



Let Me be known! God said,
and amino acids bloomed
in the amniotic sea.

A semi-permeable membrane
divided waters outside
from waters inside.

The ribosomes received
their names and tasks
and it was good.

But restive creation
hungered for knowledge
the womb couldn't provide.

Eden pushed us out
through narrow straits.
We can't go back.

Sometimes we wail.
This world's manna
isn't what we remember.

But a crackle of matzah
a drop of seder wine
quiets our cries

reminds us of heaven.
Let this waybread be enough
for our great journey

toward the One Who flows
with milk and honey,
Who yearns to be revealed.

Today is the second day of the Omer, the second day on our journey between Pesach and Shavuot, liberation and revelation.

(Again, I mean "today" in the Jewish sense; the second day of the Omer began on Sunday evening at sundown, and will end on Monday evening at sundown. I'm posting these poems in the morning, and those of you who receive them via email subscription are probably getting them around East Coast dinnertime, toward the end of this "day" of the counting.)

One of my favorite Hasidic teachings about God is that God created because God yearned to be known. This poem also plays with images from Bereshit (Genesis) -- God's creation of the universe, and also the expulsion of the first humans from Eden -- as well as images from scientific description of life.

Torah describes the ancient Israelites wailing in the desert, missing the certainties of servitude. What do we miss about what we've left behind? Can this heightened time in our religious year bring us comfort?

Shavuot, the end of this 49-day journey, is when we celebrate the revelation of Torah. Torah is likened to milk and honey. It's also considered, in Jewish tradition, the way we come to know God. What will we receive this year when we stand at the foot of Sinai and open ourselves to what comes?

Day 1 of the Omer



The Egyptian sky
    was a goddess
        doing a backbend.

Once we crossed
    the watery barrier
        she gave way

and the heavens
    became sapphire floor
        beneath the throne.

And we stood
    by the sea
        and sang praises

because what else
    could we do,
        we who survived?

Here we are
    again, shaking off
        salt water tears

on a shore
    we've never seen.
        There's no map.

Above us, miles
    of air stretching
        to kiss vacuum:

all that freedom
    impossible to bear
        sometimes. Too much

depends on us.
    Last night's maror
        stings our eyes.

Ahead: uncharted space,
    the holy wilderness
        of the heart.

Take one step
    into the labyrinth.
        Leave Egypt behind.

Today is the first day of the Omer -- the measured period of 49 days which we count between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Over the next seven weeks I'll be sharing daily poems which are intended to open new windows into the spiritual journey of counting the Omer.

(I mean "today" in the Jewish sense. A Jewish day begins and ends at sundown. So today, the first day of the Omer, began Saturday evening at sundown, and will end this evening at sundown. Many people count the Omer at sundown, when the "day" is new. But I'll be sharing these daily Omer poems in the morning.)

"The Egyptian sky / was a goddess / doing a backbend" -- one of the deities in the Egyptian pantheon was Nut, sometimes depicted as a star-covered woman arching over the earth.

"[T]he heavens / became sapphire floor / beneath the throne" -- see parashat Mishpatim and its description of the floor beneath the divine throne as being like sapphire. The idea of the sky changing as the prevailing beliefs change also owes a debt to Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky books.

Today we take our first step on the journey between Pesach and Shavuot. What are we headed toward? What are we leaving behind?

Entering Week Four of the Omer

Aharon-Varady-Sefirot-HaOmer-ChartI haven't been blogging the counting of the Omer this year. I wish I had been able to commit to a practice of writing something inspired by the themes and teachings of each of the 49 days, but there was just no way -- it was either daily poems during April, or daily posts during the Omer, but I couldn't see how to do both! (Maybe some year I'll try writing a cycle of 49 poems during the Omer count, but this was not the year for it.) But I've been thinking a lot about the Omer journey this year.

Today is the 21st day of the Omer -- in the kabbalistic system, the day of Malchut she'b'Tiferet. Malchut means sovereignty, nobility; it evokes the presence of Shekhinah, the immanent divine Presence dwelling within creation. Tiferet means harmony, balance, compassion. In his Omer guide, Rabbi Rami Shapiro describes today's quality as "the capacity to help others without demeaning them." The ability to respond with harmony and compassion from a place of gentle presence and connection with God.

Tonight at sundown we'll enter into the fourth week of the Omer. This is the middle week of the seven: three weeks before, three weeks after. This week is the hinge between the first half and the second half.

In the kabbalistic system, this is the week of Netzach, endurance. (Here's the post I wrote about this week a few years ago: Seeking endurance.) About this quality, Rabbi Min Kantrowitz writes:

Netzach is like spiritual fuel... Helping us get through difficult times with grace, Netzach is available during the bumpy events of ordinary times and the dramatic and unavoidable traumas of life.

Also in that kabbalistic system, the first day of each week of the Omer is the week of Chesed, lovingkindness -- so the day which will begin tonight at sundown will be the day of Chesed she'b'Netzach, Lovingkindness Within Endurance. Rabbi Min writes:

Chesed she'b'Netzach is the fuel that keeps a parent awake for hours in the middle of the night soothing a colicky infant, sustains the exhausted caregiver helping his dying lover, and supports the underpaid teacher of distracted and energetic adolescents.

Perhaps these descriptions will resonate with some of you, as they resonate with me.

Any substantive journey of transformation -- be it counting the Omer, preparing for the Days of Awe, studying for years toward rabbinic ordination, or parenthood -- requires endurance. There comes a time when one has traveled such a distance that the old shores of one's former life have receded in the distance, but the new shores of who one is becoming are not yet visible on the far side of the sea.

The 22nd day of the Omer, which begins tonight, invites us to cultivate lovingkindness as we seek to draw on our own endurance. This is not about gritting our teeth and getting through it. This is a process of responding to whatever arises, as we seek to continue doing the work, with kindness and with love.

How can you be kind to yourself as you try to sustain the big work of your life? How can you hold yourself with love even as you struggle to keep putting one foot in front of the other, despite obstacles and difficulties which inevitably arise? Can you respond even to those difficulties from a place of unending love?

Omer links and resources

Omer earsI'm about to begin teaching a weekly Omer spiritual study group at my synagogue, and as a result, I've been collecting materials to share.

We'll be working sometimes with the kabbalistic paradigm which assigns to each week of the Omer, and to each day within each week, one of seven qualities which we and God share (chesed / lovingkindness, gevurah / boundaried strength, and so on) -- and sometimes with the Mussar paradigm which assigns to each day of the Omer one of the 48 qualities with which one acquires Torah (attentive listening, joy, humility, and so on). My intention is to use both of these paradigms as lenses for the real focus of our study, which is the inner work which each of us needs to do in order to be ready to receive Torah at Shavuot.

Of course, I'll be sharing with them excerpts from my cherished collection of Omer books, among them Rabbi Min Kantrowitz's Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide, Rabbi Jill Hammer's Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, Rabbi Yael Levy's Journey through the Wilderness, Shifrah Tobacman's Omer/Teshuvah, and Rabbi Simon Jacobson's The Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer.

I'm also handing out this colorful Omer chart; a teaching from the Slonimer rebbe about how Pesach lifts us to spiritual heights and then the Omer gives us the opportunity to make that climb under our own power; an excerpt from an essay by Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg about leaping and waiting; some Omer teachings from Rabbi Chava Bahle; and this annotated edition of Pirkei Avot 6:6. I'll also be sharing some links with that group, and I figured I'd post them here, too, for anyone who's interested.

Here's the first one:

There’s a place, halfway between now and tomorrow. It’s the place where the road shifts, where time slows and choices open into every possibility, every future.

There’s a place, halfway between Egypt and Sinai. It’s the place where the echoes of slavery fade, the music of freedom begins its song and the thunder of G-d’s voice can almost be heard...

That's from the essay Halfway Between Green and Yellow, by Alden Solovy. Alden also has a list of daily Omer prayers and meditations at Omer | To Bend Light.

Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan offers an excellent introduction to the Omer. In her first post of this year, she explains:

Last year I reflected in dialogue with the writings of the Ramak, Kabbalistic teacher Rabbi Moses Cordovero (1522-1570). This year, I am exploring the names of the sefirot as they appear in their original contexts in the Tanakh, Hebrew Bible.

Each exploration showcases a different facet of the week’s quality, and suggests a different focus for spiritual self-questioning, action, and growth.

Chesed: risky love and kindness, offered in a situation that might be tricky, dangerous, or emotionally fraught. An act of chesed may have only a long shot at success but, if it succeeds, it has a far-reaching effect. At least, that’s how our Biblical ancestors spoke of chesed...

That's from her post Chesed | Love and Kindness.

Rabbi Leila Gal Berner has written a poem for the Omer which I think is terrific:

Forty-nine days,
wandering in the wilderness
newly-birthed to
moving toward
where the Holy One
will entrust us with
the Teaching...

You can read the whole thing at Kol ALEPH: Sacred Harvest.

If you're looking for daily Omer meditations which will come to you via email (and which will remind you to count each day!), I'm receiving two and can recommend both. One is from Mishkan / A Way In; the other is from Journey of the Soul: Making the Omer Count. Also, Rabbi David Seidenberg of has created an Omer app which is available for iPhone and for Droid.

May your journey through the Omer be fruitful.

The Omer is about to begin!

13539661493_7d503a9c2a_nChag sameach - happy Pesach!

Tonight at our second-night seders we'll begin the tradition of Counting the Omer. "Omer" means measures. When the Temple still stood, it was customary to bring harvest offerings three times a year, at Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. The tradition of counting the Omer dates to those days. We would count the days between the Pesach spring harvest of early wheat and the Shavuot summer harvest of new barley, and then offer a measure of that grain in thanks to our Source.

Today most of us see the counting of the Omer through a different lens. Instead of the agricultural reason, we focus instead on the idea that Shavuot is the anniversary of the revelation of Torah at Sinai. At Pesach we celebrate our liberation; at Shavuot we celebrate our entering-into-covenant with God. Freedom alone is not enough. The real meaning of our liberation is that we become free to enter into relationship with the Holy One of Blessing. We count the 49 days between Peach and Shavuot in growing excitement and anticipation, knowing that on the 50th day, the Torah is coming!

When I was in Jerusalem shortly before Pesach, I saw early spring grain growing wild on a patch of unbuilt land near Emek Refaim and marveled at that tangible evidence of how our festival calendar is rooted in the natural rhythms and cycles of the  Near East -- both ancient and modern. But even for those of us who live far away from the Mediterranean, and those of us who've never grown a stalk of wheat or barley in our lives, the Omer period can be a fertile and fruitful one. I am quite attached to the kabbalistic custom of associating each week (and each day of each week) with one of seven middot, divine qualities in which we as God's children partake. The first week is the week of chesed, lovingkindness; the second week, gevurah, boundaried-strength; the third week is tiferet, harmony and balance; the fourth, netzach, endurance; the fifth week is hod, splendor and humility (there's a koan for you, eh?); the sixth is yesod, foundation and generations; the seventh is malkhut, sovereignty and nobility. And within each week, there is one day for each quality, so that over the course of the seven weeks, we have the opportunity to closely examine ourselves through the 49 different lenses of these qualities as they combine in us.

If you're looking for a reminder to engage in the daily Omer count, along with a sweet contemplative or mystical teaching for each day, Rabbi Yael Levy at Mishkan Shalom sends one out every day. You can sign up here: Count the Omer with Mishkan Shalom. There's also a compilation of Omer resources at Kol ALEPH, the official blog of ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Wishing you a meaningful journey through the Omer!


Photo source: my photostream. (Taken in Jerusalem a few weeks ago.)

After the summit, the climb: a Shavuot teaching

This is the teaching I offered late last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot. It's loosely adapted from the Netivot Shalom, a.k.a. the Slonimer Rebbe, a.k.a. R' Shalom Noach Berezovsky. I originally translated it for a Hasidut class taught by R' Elliot Ginsburg; this version is streamlined a bit for easier teaching.

Someone once asked my teacher why on a first visit we can come directly to him and all the gates are opened to us, but on the second visit everything is closed. He answered with a parable:

You're taken up to the top of a high mountain, and you see the view that is all around you, and notice how glorious it is there. After that, you're brought back down to the bottom. And now, you must begin to climb up to the summit under your own power.

Once you see how wonderful it is up there, that encourages you to use your own strength to get back there. Initially, we receive enlightenment from above, that we might see with our own eyes how good it is to serve God. As Psalm 34 says, "Taste and see that God is good!"

After that, we're returned to our original (spiritual) place. But now we can go up on our own, now that we know where the heights are and how wonderful they are. That's what gives us the strength to push ourselves to climb.

On the first day of Pesach, we receive enlightenment from above. (It's as though we received a cosmic download of divinity, all compressed into a tight bundle, and we spend the 49 days of the Omer unpacking that download, lighting up each individual quality within ourselves which corresponds to the divine quality of that day.)

The energy, the potential, for climbing up to Shavuot comes from the illumination of that first day of Pesach. The first seder lights us up and inspires us to climb.

The seven weeks of the Omer are a time of spiritual preparation, during which we ready ourselves to receive the Torah. At the moment of the giving of the Torah, all seven heavens are open. All of our middot, the spiritual qualities which we share with God, are open and illuminated.

The experience of constriction, Mitzrayim, tarnished us. But on the first night of Pesach, God awakens us from on high. That awakening gives us the strength to spend the next seven weeks cleansing ourselves from the residue which accrues when we enslave ourselves to worldly things.

Pesach is a moment of erusin, betrothal, when Israel as a people becomes given-over to God. The 49 days of sefirat ha-Omer are a period of preparation and courting, preparing for the moment of being lifted-up. And at Shavuot, we and God are wed.

During the 49 days of the counting of the Omer, we "turn from evil and do good," again in the words of Psalm 34. We turn from the evil of enslavement, and pursue the goodness of receiving Torah. We turn from the evil of our own worst impulses and bad habits, and pursue the goodness of our best qualities (which we share with God.)

Throughout this journey, we draw on the energy we experienced on high, that first Passover night, to carry us the rest of the way to union at the mountaintop again.

And when we work for it; when we come seeking God; when we make the climb; we awaken the process of the revelation of the Torah. We needed to get here under our own power, and now that we've made it, the revelation is ready to pour in.


Have you experienced feeling 'lifted up,' then having to work to get back there?
How can you "turn from evil and do good" in your own life?
What is the Torah you most need to receive this year?
Quiet your mind, go inward, and ask the Holy Blessed One for revelation.

Happy Lag B'Omer! Two from the VR archives.

Today is the 33rd day of the Omer. Since Hebrew letters are also numbers, and the Hebrew number 33 is spelled לג, today is called Lag b'Omer. It's a minor holiday, with all sorts of fascinating stories and teachings attached to it. I don't have anything new to share for Lag b'Omer this year, but here are two Lag b'Omer posts from the archives:

  • Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag B'Omer!, 2007. "In traditional Judaism, the counting of the Omer is a kind of semi-mourning period, and Lag b'Omer marks either an end to, or a pause in, the mourning. Some say we're mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva, who were killed by a plague because they didn't treat one another with respect; the plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer.

    Some say that what it's really about is, Rabbi Akiva supported the Bar Kokhba revolt against Roman occupation. Many of his students followed him in supporting that revolt, and were killed. The so-called "plague" which ended on Lag b'Omer is a euphemism for the ill-fated rebellion...And here's another interpretation -- one I quite like: Lag b'Omer can be understood as a kind of Jewish May Day."

  • The bonfire of the expansive heart, 2009. "It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. Today is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

    In honor of that tradition, I want to offer a Hasidic teaching which relates to Lag B'Omer. It's about the importance of having a good heart..."

Happy Lag b'Omer! May we all strive to see the grace in each other, and may we cultivate good hearts filled with kindness, compassion, optimism, and joy.

Daily April poem: unprompted


When we planted this red maple
it was barely a foot high,
shorter than a frill of kale.
We'd been married five years.
We dug a little hole and hoped.

This week the snow is finally gone
and we walk the perimeter, unearthing
sandbox toys, faded cars,
plastic tee and bat.
I almost don't recognize the tree:

sprawling gangly, reaching
over my head toward the clouds.
Ten years make a solid foundation
for curled-tight leafbuds, balanced
across branches, ready to burst free.



This poem wasn't written to any prompt; it arose on its own. I wrote it on the 20th day of the Omer, the day of yesod (roots, generativity, foundation) within the week of tiferet (harmony, balance). I had that combination of qualities in mind as I worked on the poem. Hopefully their presence is manifest.


30/30 poem 1: from start to finish


Jewish math moves in multiples of seven:
six days of creation and then Shabbat
six years of farming, then the sabbatical
seven times seven years, then the jubilee
seven times seven days for the journey
between Pesach and Shavuot, freedom and revelation --
each day a facet which we polish
on this bright gem with 49 sides
and as we count we ascend slowly
to Sinai's dry foothills where we'll camp:
see thunder, hear shofar, await further instructions


The folks at the Word by Word festival are doing a 30 poems / 30 days challenge during April (National Poetry Month), and they're emailing out daily prompts. I can't promise that I'll write 30 poems this month (nor that I'll post all of them here, even if I do), but I figured I'd at least post the first one. The first prompt was from start to finish.

Since we're in the period of the Counting of the Omer, that was the start-to-finish which immediately came to mind. The Omer lasts for seven weeks, seven sets of seven days. As I wrote and revised, the poem took on the ad hoc form of seven words per line. Enjoy! (ETA: here are all of the poems written / submitted for this prompt...)

And another ETA: don't miss NaPoWriMo 2013 if daily April poems are your cup of tea!

A Sestina for Counting the Omer

We mark the Omer day
by day, spring unfolding light
as snowflakes in the breeze. One
follows another; we measure each week
of this dusty journey through
wild unknowing. Come and count.

Time to make our qualities count.
The kaleidoscope shifts every day,
each dawn a lens that God shines through.
What in me will be revealed as light
streams into me each week?
Seven colors of the rainbow make one

beam of white. God is One
and God's in everything we count.
Lovingkindness permeates the first week,
then boundaries, harmony, each day
a different lens for light
to warm our hearts as it glows through.

And when the Omer count is through?
We'll stand at Sinai, every one
-- every soul that's ever been -- light
as Chagall's floating angels. Count
with me, and treasure each day.
A holy pause caps every week.

Endurance comes into play: week
four. We wonder, will we make it through?
Humility and splendor in a single day,
two opposites folded into one.
Roots strengthen us as we count.
Every day, more work to do and stronger light.

Torah is black fire on white, light
of our lives. In the seventh week
time warps and ripples as we count.
Kingship and presence come through,
transcendence and immanence bundled as one,
wholly revealed on the forty-ninth day...

Feel the light now pouring through.
Each week the seven sefirot become one.
It's time to count the Omer, now, today.

Marc+Chagall+Floating+Flying+loversThe Counting of the Omer -- as regular readers no doubt know by now! -- is the holy process of marking and counting each of the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation.

In the kabbalistic system, each week represents one of the seven lower sefirot, and so does each day within each week. So the first week is the week of chesed, lovingkindness; week two is gevurah, boundaries; week three is tiferet, harmony; week four is netzach, endurance; week five is hod, humility and splendor; week six is yesod, roots or foundation; and week seven is malchut, kingship / sovereignty / Shekhinah. Within each week, also, the seven qualities play out day by day.

Chagall2"Every day there is more work to do / and stronger light" is a couplet from Marge Piercy's glorious poem "Season of the Egg," which I read every year during my Pesach seder. I abbreviated it slightly to make it work here as a single line. (You can find her poem online in this blog post -- just scroll down a bit.) And as for the reference to Chagall's floating angels, here are thumbnails of two beautiful Marc Chagall paintings which feature people floating. I like to think of them as people whose spirits can't help but soar.

On children, and suffering, and this day of the Omer

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. So taught the poet Jason Shinder, may his memory be a blessing, and that sentence has become one of my mantras. It works for me on both a poetic level (whatever is obscuring the poem I think I need to write, that very thing is probably what I really ought to be writing about) and a spiritual one (whatever life "stuff" is getting in the way of my spiritual practice needs to itself become the spiritual practice.) The work -- of creativity, of spiritual life, of living -- is made of whatever I experience in the moment, not whatever I imagine I ought to be experiencing, or whatever I had planned to experience.

Lately what's getting in the way of (at least some of) the work is latent anxiety about the certainty that our son will experience pain. This has arisen for me because we've had a few medical adventures recently, and as a result I've been newly-confronted with reminders that just as everyone who lives in a body sometimes experiences pain, so will our little boy. Intellectually I can tell you that nothing he's experiencing is a big deal. (Really, really not a big deal.) But emotionally, the prospect of our son suffering stops me in my tracks. I would do anything to forestall or prevent that, if I could. As would any (healthy) parent; the sentiment is so obvious that it's banal. Of course I wish I could protect him from pain. And I can't.

I know that his minor bumps and bruises and routine procedures are vanishingly insignificant, and that not all children are so fortunate. Take those two little boys who are sick, about whom I wrote back in the fall -- a six-year-old with leukemia; a four-year-old with a brain tumor -- just to name two examples from within my online circle of friends. (Sam appears, thankfully, to be doing great. ETA: As of the next day, Sam's leukemia has relapsed. Gus is finishing chemo; please read his mom's latest update, which talks about their journey and the other kids they've met along the way.) There are so many sick kids in the world. I ministered to a few of them when I was a student chaplain. I know that I would have a much harder time with that part of hospital chaplaincy now that I'm someone's mom. I know in my head that children suffer, but I can't bear to know it in my heart. Or: I know it in brief flickers, and then I put at least a partial lid on that knowing, because I can't inhabit that knowledge and also function in the world. My heart feels too tender.

Several of my friends have been reading and discussing Sonali Deraniyagala's book Wave (see, e.g., Lorianne DiSabato's post after Wave at Hoarded Ordinaries, or Teju Cole's review A Better Quality of Agony in the New Yorker.) Deraniyagala lost her entire family in a tsunami: husband, children, parents, everyone she loved. Wave is her memoir and her remembrance of them and of what she lost. I believe that the book is powerful and well-written and important, bit I don't know if I can bear to read it. There, too, I'm operating out of heart rather than head. I'm inhabiting the realm of yetzirah, emotions, rather than briyah, intellect. Intellectually I believe that Deraniyagala's book is tremendous. Emotionally, I don't think I can face it. At least not right now.

"Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." I've seen that quote floating around in various forms for years. (It's attributed to Elizabeth Stone, author of A Boy I Once Knew.) Granted, it's a cliché to say that I didn't wholly understand it until I had a child, but I suppose there's a reason why some clichés endure. Yes: some part of my heart is walking around in the world, learning and trying and striving and falling and laughing and wailing and doing all of the things that children do. A part of my heart is out there, independent, living on his own. And I can't spare him suffering, even though I wish I could. It's a kind of emotional and spiritual exposure, as though some part of my own heart and spirit which had been safely tucked-away were now open to the world, to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to the physical suffering which every body comes to know.

In the Counting of the Omer, today is the day of tiferet she'b'chesed, harmony and balance within lovingkindness. The quality of chesed, of overflowing love, is one that (the kabbalists teach) we and God share. "Parent" is one of our foremost metaphors for God. God is the Parent Who births all of creation, who feels our joys and our sorrows, who suffers when we suffer. And God also manifests through the quality of tiferet, harmony and balance. Today is the day when, as the kaleidoscope of the Omer turns, the two qualities reflect and refract one another. The day of balance within the week of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness filtered and framed through the kind of harmoniousness which arises when everything is in balance.

Maybe my work today is to (re)learn how to imbue chesed with today's quality of tiferet, to temper my overflowing openheartedness with the harmony which arises when good love has good boundaries and balance is reached. Suffering is real, and children experience suffering, and I wouldn't want to be the kind of person who doesn't feel tenderhearted dismay at remembering that reality anew. But today is a day for finding balance within that space of tender heart. Maybe I can find it through celebrating the caregivers, parents and grandparents and nurses and doctors and friends, whose loving hands manifest the presence of God in caring for all of the children in need.

Today is the First Day of the Omer!

ColorfulOmerChartToday is the first day of the Omer -- the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation!

I'm not going to manage daily Omer posts this year (as I did last year on my congregational blog), but here's my post for Day 1 of the Omer last year -- just ignore the Gregorian date, since the first day of the Omer this year began at sundown on Monday March 25, which is to say, last night.

The kabbalists of Jewish tradition developed the idea that these seven weeks are a special time for focusing on a set of seven sefirot, seven divine qualities which we share with God: lovingkindness, boundaried strength, harmony and balance, endurance, humility, roots / foundation, and nobility / sovereignty.

I like to think of these qualities as facets of a gem, and during each week of the Omer, a different facet is held up to the light. Or perhaps, lenses / facets of a prism. Shine white light through a prism, and the seven colors of the rainbow emerge. Shine divinity through the prism of these seven weeks, and these seven qualities come into new focus.

And because there are seven days in each week, we rotate through the seven qualities each week, too.

Today is the day of chesed she'b'chesed, lovingkindness within lovingkindness. Abiding love, abounding love, lovingkindness and compassion which overflows our hearts and spills into the world around us. May we embody this quality as we move through the world today, on this first step toward the wonder of the revelation at Sinai.

If you're looking for Omer-counting resources, here are four wonderful books for counting the Omer: one by Shifrah Tobacman, one by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, one by Rabbi Jill Hammer, and one by Rabbi Yael Levy. Rabbi Levy is at Mishkan Shalom, and each year she sends out daily Omer teachings via email and Facebook -- you can learn more, and sign up, here: Count the Omer with Us from Passover to Shavuot. And the spiraling map of the Omer count which illustrates this post was adapted from the one I found here: Counting of the Omer | Temple B'nai Abraham -- but I added the color-coding and the indications of which qualities are ascendant on each day. Here's a printable pdf if you want it: ColorfulOmerChart [pdf]

A few teachings in advance of Lag B'Omer


A Lag B'Omer bonfire.

Today is the 30th day of the Omer. In three more days we'll reach the minor festival of Lag B'Omer -- the 33rd day of the Omer. ("Lag" is how we pronounce the Hebrew number 33, spelled lamed-gimel, ל''ג.) But beyond being the thirty-third day of the counting between Pesach and Shavuot, what's Lag B'Omer?

I'm so glad you asked! The simple answer is, there's no one simple answer. A few years ago I shared the following set of interpretations:

One interpretation of the chronology in Torah holds that on this date, manna first began to fall from the heavens for the Israelites in the desert. Lag B'Omer (celebrated with picnics and rejoicing) can be understood as a commemoration of that happy miracle.

Another story (found in the Talmud) holds that 24,000 of the students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva died from a plague during the counting of the Omer because they failed to give one another proper respect (or, in Reb Zalman's interpretation, they failed to see the chen, divine grace, in one another.) Many traditional Jews observe limited mourning customs during the first 32 days of the Omer, in remembrance of that plague; Lag b'Omer marks the day when the plague came to its end, and hence, we celebrate.

An alternate interpretation holds that the students died as part of the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome (132-136 C.E.) We spend the first 32 days of the Omer mourning their deaths...until the 33rd day of the Omer, when we rejoice that the massacre finally ended. (The killing may have come to an end, but the outcome of the war was pretty bleak; the name Judea was erased from Roman maps, the study of Torah was prohibited, and Jews were barred from entering Jerusalem. Oy.) Fearing of reprisal from Roman authorities, the sages of the Talmud didn't want to mention the failed rebellion by name, so spoke of a "plague" instead.

Some Jews celebrate the yarzheit (death-anniversary) of the sage Shimon bar Yochai on this day; he was a student of Rabbi Akiva's, and it is to him that the Zohar -- germinal work of Jewish mysticism -- is traditionally attributed. In this understanding, we light bonfires to symbolize the way his teachings illuminated the night.

It interests me that these are the stories we tell about this minor holiday. [Lag B'Omer] is a day for remembering how important it is that we see the grace in one another, and honor one another's learning. It's a day to remember the dangers of following messianic figures into violent rebellion. And it's a day for celebrating illumination: not just the literal illumination of burning sticks and logs, but the metaphysical and spiritual illumination embodied in the wisdom of Torah and the Jewish mystical tradition.

The remainder of that post contains a beautiful Hasidic teaching. You can read it here: The bonfire of the expansive heart. (2009)

This year, Lag B'Omer will begin on Wednesday evening at sundown. Some of the traditional ways of celebrating Lag B'Omer include bonfires and barbecues, archery and ballgames, even getting one's hair cut (some Jews observe a prohibition against hair-cutting during the "semi-mourning" period of the first 32 days of the Omer, and that ban is lifted on Lag B'Omer.) Ifyou're interested in an alternative set of ideas about how to celebrate Lag B'Omer, try the latter half of the post Plagues? Rebellions? May Day? Lag B'Omer. (2007)

How will you be celebrating Lag B'Omer? Even if there are no bonfires or picnics in your plan for this week, can you imagine a way of making the day meaningful for you?

First of May

Hills on May Day.

This May Day is cool and green-grey. All the world seems chartreuse today. The grass is vivid, the forsythia bushes have mostly shed their yellow blooms, new leaves are pushing their way forth like tiny wet handkerchiefs.

The higher hilltops are still pale purple-brown, but the valleys vibrate at the unmistakeable frequency of new spring. And the color is on its inexorable march up the hillsides. Another few weeks and the green will win.

I moved my three geraniums outside today. They've held on through another indoor winter of too-dry air and my forgetfulness with the watering can. Now they're on the deck drinking in the light rain.

We used to invite friends over for May Day. May poles and bonfires and face paint. Maybe someday when our current crop of kids is old enough to enjoy it, we'll revive those traditions. I like to imagine our boys laughing, running, weaving ribbons.

It's the 24th day of the Omer, the day of tiferet (balance, harmony) within netzach (endurance). I can feel the natural world in balance today, winter gone but summer not yet here. Every plant, tree, blade of grass lives, thrives, endures.

Teachings for the new month of Iyar

We've entered the lunar month of Iyar. This month unfolds entirely during the counting of the Omer. And I just read some really beautiful teachings about spring, the counting of the Omer, and meditation. Here, have a taste:

Did you ever hear the expression "something's in the air"? when we can feel something, but it's just out of our reach, and yet we know it's there, that's when we say "there's something in the air". Judaism tells us that at all times, there is "something in the air". At any particular time, there is a spiritual influence, an ineffable influx, just beyond us, waiting to be tapped into. The minute we tap into it, it becomes a part of us, and we become imbued with it...

During the month of Iyar, meditation takes on special meaning, because it's connected with the exodus from Egypt. The exodus required a spectacular burst of spiritual energy in order to spring us out of captivity in Egypt. But, once having achieved the hurried exit from the land of limitations, it was incumbent upon us to start incorporating that sudden burst of spiritual revelation into our lives. The way we do that, during the month of Iyar, is by meditating.

But how do we know upon what to meditate? The answer is: it's in the air. It's been in the air since Pesach, since the exodus, since the onset of spring. "It" is the spectacular burst which sprung us out of Egypt, and into a state of freedom. Our meditation must be on this burst of energy, but in such a way as to integrate it into our own lives. The way we do that is by counting. The commandment of counting the "omer", requires that for every day for forty-nine days, -seven weeks-, we take a facet of that initial spring energy, meditate upon it, and integrate it into our personalities. The word for "counting" in Hebrew is the same as the word for "telling" or "narrating", and it also means to "polish", or make shine. By counting, we are actually accessing this spirituality which is "in the air", and internalizing it in order to make our personalities shine.

Read the whole thing: Iyar - Jerusalem Connection. (You may find that some of what's on the page is a bit esoteric, and that some of it focuses on Yom Yerushalayim in a way which may not be universal, but I think there's some really beautiful material there.)

I love the idea that Judaism teaches us that all times, there is "something in the air" -- a spiritual tenor or tone to every moment of the day, to every month of the year. And I love the idea that at this season, through the contemplative practice of counting the Omer and focusing on how the divine qualities of lovingkindness and boundaried strength and harmony (and so on) unfold in us, we can access what's uniquely in the air at this time of year. A sense of transformation, maybe. A readiness to go beyond the initial plunge into the Sea, and to continue on toward the moment when we will celebrate our reception of Torah, our covenant with God -- or, framed in different language, our encounter with the ineffable which has left us, and will leave us, forever changed.


Counting the Omer in the Toddler House


The year I was pregnant
I counted the weeks
until I could reveal your presence.
With each turned page

you were the size of an aspirin,
a raisin, a grape.
Your tiny heart fluttered.
You grew fingernails and kidneys.

Who could focus on the journey
through God's qualities?
I was a kaleidoscope
for splendor.

Now that you're two
I know what the kabbalists
hid in plain sight:
to God, we're all toddlers

pushing boundaries, sulking
exaggerated on the floor, then
beaming, earnest and sweet
and our Parent meets us

with lovingkindness
with boundaried strength
with perfect balance
which endures forever...

Sometimes She lays down the law
but Her arms are always open
when we run too fast in new sandals
and skin our tender knees.

I think I'm really getting into the groove of this toddler house series. This poem riffs on the practice of counting the Omer, the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. (Here are my previous years' posts about the Omer; this year I'm posting daily Omer reflections at my congregational blog.)

In the kabbalistic understanding, each day of the 49 represents a different combination of divine qualities: chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (boundaried strength), tiferet (harmony / balance), netzach (endurance), hod (humility / splendor), yesod (foundation), malchut (nobility / sovereignty.)

This year I can't seem to help relating to each of these divine qualities as a quality necessary in parenting. As I take note of each day, I think: how do I experience these qualities in my relationship with God? And how can I manifest them in my relationship with my son?

Ana b'Koach / Untie our Tangles (a melody for the Omer count)

The words of "Ana B'Koach" in Hebrew and transliteration.

Back in 2010, I posted about a prayer called Ana B'Koach:

My friend Reb David Seidenberg calls Ana B'Koach  one of the 'masterpieces of mystical prayer.' (Here's the NeoHasid page on Ana B'Koach, which features some explanation, some history, and the words of the prayer in Hebrew, transliteration, and English.) I first encountered this prayer when I started hanging around in Jewish Renewal circles. It's a favorite prayer in that community because of Renewal's neo-Hasidic roots.

Nowhere in the prayer do any traditional names of God appear -- but the prayer itself is considered to be one long name of God, which is why it ends with the line "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va'ed," "Blessed is God's glorious kingdom forever and ever" (or, in Reb Zalman's translation, "Through time and space, Your glory shines, Majestic One.")

In his book All Breathing Life (which I posted about a while back) Reb Zalman writes that "[This prayer] is considered by many to be a very potent passkey that takes our prayers directly to God, even when other avenues are blocked," he writes. It's also traditional, as NeoHasid notes, to sing this prayer every day after counting the Omer.

Here's Reb Zalman's translation, which can be found in All Breathing Life. It's singable to the same melody as the Hebrew. Like Reb Zalman, I like to sing it using the melody which comes from the Rhiziner Rebbe (the great-grandson of Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid or 'storyteller' of Mezritch).

Source of Mercy,
With loving strength
Untie our tangles.

Your chanting folk
Raise high, make pure
Accept our song.

Like Your own eye,
Lord, keep us safe
Who union seek with You!

Cleanse and bless us
Infuse us ever
With loving care.

Gracious source
Of holy power!
Do guide Your folk.

Sublime and holy One,
Do turn to us
Of holy chant.

Receive our prayer
Do hear our cry
Who secrets knows.

Through time and space
Your glory shines,
Majestic One.

(There's a more traditional translation alongside the Hebrew text at NeoHasid's Ana B'Khoach liturgy page.) You can hear Reb Zalman singing this chant to the Rizhyner's melody here at this compilation of melodies from All Breathing Life. And if you're so inclined, you can listen to me singing it, too -- I sing the first and last verses in Hebrew, and the remainder in English.


I love the idea of praying these words during the Omer journey. Spending these seven weeks contemplating God's qualities (of lovingkindness, boundaries and strength, balance, endurance, humble splendor, foundation / rootedness, and sovereignty) inevitably means also contemplating the ways in which these qualities do or don't manifest in us. It's easy to come away feeling tangled. This prayer reminds us that God can help us unsnarl our internal emotional and spiritual knots.


(This is cross-posted to the CBI From the Rabbi blog, since this melody is going to be our Song for the Month next month. To anyone who reads both blogs, apologies for the repeat!)

First day of the Omer

It's the first day of the Omer -- the spiritual journey of counting the days between Pesach and Shavuot, between freedom and revelation. Here's what I posted at my congregational blog for today (I won't cross-post all of these, but wanted to share the first one here too -- if you want the next 48 days, you can subscribe to the Omer tag or choose that blog's "follow blog by email" option, in the sidebar.)


Chesed b’Chesed
Lovingkindness within Lovingkindness

The first week of the Omer is the week of chesed, divine lovingkindness. It begins with the day of chesed within chesed, lovingkindness squared.

This is the week for reflecting on how love manifests in our lives — divine love, and also human love which is (in my understanding) a reflection and refraction of the love God feels for us. Chesed is limitless love, limitless kindness.

This week we ask: how can I be kinder and more loving? To those I meet — to the people I know, and the people I don’t know — to those who agree with me, and even those who angrily disagree with me? How can I be kinder to myself — how can I do the work of discerning what my heart and soul most need, and then kindly and graciously filling that need for myself? Can I feel, deep in my bones, that the universe is a kind and loving place for me to be? Can I extend lovingkindness to myself, and then once I am feeling whole and healed, extend it to those I meet?

Take a moment to think about compassion and lovingkindness. Remember a moment when someone has responded to you with kindness and love. Remember a moment when you responded to someone else in those ways.

Cultivate lovingkindness today in your heart and your actions. This is the first step toward Shavuot, toward revelation, toward Sinai.

As I count the Omer, let my counting create a tikkun, a healing, between transcendence and immanence, God far above and God deep within.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ רוּחַ הַעולָם, אָשֶר קִדשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָנוּ אַל סְפִירַת הַעמֶר.

Baruch atah, Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sfirat ha-omer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, source of all being, who makes us holy with mitzvot and gives us this opportunity to count the Omer.

Today is the first day of the Omer!