We are currently in the 50-day period between Passover and Shavuot during which Jews count the days of the omer. The practice of counting the omer, literally meaning “sheath,” is related to sacrifices that were made in the Temple during the spring harvest season, as set forth in Leviticus 23:15-21: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the Sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete...”
Today, Jews observe the period of the omer in different ways. Some refrain from cutting their hair during the omer in order to remember a plague that afflicted the students of Rabbi Akiva, a renowned authority in Jewish tradition who lived around the beginning of the second century. The 33 day of the omer, known as Lag Ba’Omer, marked the lifting of the plague, and is associated with a temporary lifting of the somber mood normally connected with the omer.
However, the mystic Jews who followed the spiritually-focused Kabbalah have a unique way of observing the omer, one that has added incredible richness to my annual post-Passover journey and that could potentially add meaning to your own omer counting as well.
The Kabbalists’ counting of the omer is rooted in the fundamental attributes of God called the sefirot. Each of the seven weeks of the omer is associated with one of the lower seven sefirot as laid out in the Zohar, the text that forms the foundation of Kabbalah.
The idea is that since humans are created in God’s image (b’tzelem Elohim), spending each week of the omer focusing on a different aspect of God is also an opportunity to focus on different aspects of ourselves. The counting of the omer is thus transformed into a spiritual journey during which we have the rare opportunity to take stock of the sometimes conflicting aspects of ourselves that govern how we react to difficult situations, make tough decisions, and interact with other people.
So without further adieu, here are the seven lower sefirot that are associated with the seven weeks of the omer.
The first two sefirot for the omer are polar opposites of each other, followed by the third which is the balance of the first two extremes:
1. Chesed: Overflowing loving kindness, power of vision. Chesed is manifested when you give someone who cuts you off on the freeway the benefit of the doubt and do not feel angry.
2. Gevurah: Strength, judgment, justice, determination, power of intention. Gevurah is manifested when enforcing grading rubrics and other rules.
3. Tiferet: Balance, beauty, compassion, radiance. Tiferet is the perfect balance between chesed and gevurah.
Similarly, the fourth and fifth sefirot are on opposing ends of a spectrum, followed by equilibrium:
4. Netzach: Victory, endurance, persistence, efficiency, the power to change the world for the better. Netzach is the overriding feeling at a powerful student rally to stop the genocide in Sudan.
5. Hod: Splendor, glory, being completely open to and at peace with the world exactly the way it is right now. Hod is recognizing and loving the beauty in an average sunset.
6. Yesod: Foundation, intimacy. Yesod is the perfect balance between netzach and hod.
The final sefirah (singular for sefirot) is the precursor to the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which we celebrate on Shavuot:
7. Malchut: Rulership, the presence of God on Earth.
There are many ways to incorporate the sefirot of the omer into your daily routine between Passover and Shavuot. Here are a couple of suggestions:
• Write the name and description of the week’s sefirah on a sticky note and place it somewhere you will regularly notice it. Each time you see the sticky note, ask yourself how the week’s concept relates to what is on your mind at that moment.
• Set aside 15 minutes on Friday afternoon to sit in a quiet place, close your eyes, and meditate on the week’s sefirah. Reflect by asking questions like:
o How does this week’s sefirah manifest itself in my everyday thoughts and interactions?
o To what extent do I feel connected to this aspect of myself?
o What would change if I cultivated more or less of this aspect in myself?
Counting the omer in this spiritual way is not designed to inflict guilt about how we are; the truth is that we all own the different aspects of the sefirot to varying degrees, which is natural and good! The point is to recognize the various factors that play into our behaviors and thoughts, and to use those realizations to be more whole, integrated people.
One of the themes of the sefirot of the omer is that exploring extremes is a precursor to exploring balance. The wisdom in this practice implies that in order to achieve balance and wholeness in our lives, we must first know what it is like to encounter the far reaches of the spectrum. A day where nothing seems to go according to plan is on one end of the scale and can actually function as the jumping-off point for a more centered day in the future.
The spiritual searching that can occur between Passover and Shavuot is an analog for the exploring that the Jewish people did between leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. By focusing on the various dimensions of ourselves through the sefirot of the omer, we can recreate the searching that happened so long ago as the Jewish people wandered in the desert and continue to feel as though we personally came out of Egypt.
May the season of the omer bring greater self-knowledge and awareness to each of us.
Prepared by Neil Spears, Arline and David L. Bittker Fellow at the Hillel Schusterman International Center.
For further reading on the sefirot of the omer, counting the omer, and information about Lag Ba’Omer, consider the resources at www.MyJewishLearning.com.