Counting the Omer

We have just passed the midway mark of the Counting of the Omer, the 49-day period between the second night of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot.  In ancient times, at the beginning of the spring agricultural season, an omer (sheaf) of barley was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem as a gratitude offering on each of the ensuing 49 days. The Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. ended the sacrificial system. Counting the Omer was ultimately transformed into a seven-week period of spiritual exploration. In this way, Jews have the opportunity to embark upon a spiritual journey that mirrors the ancient Hebrews’ physical journey of liberation from slavery (the Passover celebration) to the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai (the celebration of the holiday of Shavuot.)

For the past month I have been part of an online group that is counting the omer, following the structure laid out by the Kabbalists of the 17th and 18th centuries. These masters assigned to each of the seven weeks one of seven earthly emanations of the Divine: chesed (lovingkindness), g’vurah (boundaries), tif’eret (splendor/balance), netzach (endurance), hod (gratitude/humility), y’sod (intimacy) and malchut (reign/responsibility). Each day of the week embodies one of these seven qualities as well. If this sounds a bit complicated and overwhelming, it is. Yet each year I engage with this process, some nuance or other becomes clearer. Progress not perfection is our motto.

The Kabbalists taught that all seven of these earthly Divine emanations reside within each of us.  One person might be quite comfortable establishing boundaries; another opens easily to lovingkindness while another struggles to cultivate endurance. The object of this inner work is to find the “sweet spot” of these character traits.  If establishing boundaries comes easily to me, do I need to examine if my boundaries sometimes become walls preventing deeper personal connections? Is my lovingkindness so bountiful that I tip over into exhaustion and resentment, or have I learned to balance giving of myself with replenishing the well? Day by day our group reads and discusses where we slip up and where we glide forward.  

We are now in the week of hod or gratitude, which in Hebrew is translated as  “recognizing the good.” Gratitude in this sense isn’t the outpouring of ecstatic thanks but instead calls on us to take a moment, many moments in fact, to recognize our good fortune. Even in the most trying of times, we are bidden to find a kernel of light to appreciate. Something my husband does might set me off until I realize how fortunate I am to have him beside me each night and to wake up to his loving hug each morning. How can irritation not melt in the face of such blessings?

Self-awarness is a double-edged sword. The more aware I become of my thoughts and my reactions, the more I realize how far I have to go. What a judgmental, impatient, ungenerous wretch I can be! In those moments I remember again and again, “Progress, not perfection.” We are all works in progress until we draw our last breath.

Over these intense forty-nine days of counting the omer, I count my blessings, count my progress, and count to ten when the need arises. Each morning, members of our group bring sheaves of hope, determination, confusion, and more with the intention that at the end of this seven-week period we will have shaken free of enough chaff to be worthy to receive the words of Torah once again. Progress, not perfection.   Yes.  

photo courtesy of: “Ripe Barley field” by allispossible.org.uk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0