“Teach us to treasure each day, that we may open our hearts to Your wisdom.”
This is a verse from Psalm 90, and this interpretive translation and the music which goes with it was composed by Rabbi Yitzkak Husbands-Hankin at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, OR. I first heard it 17 years ago at the funeral and shiva for my father-in-law, Rabbi Myron Kinberg.
He wasn’t my father-in-law when he died in 1996 from a sudden heart attack at the age of 51. Yohanna and I had only been seeing each other for two months at the time, and I had only met him twice. Once when we left Manhattan to spend the weekend with him and Yohanna’s mother and sister at their home in East Hampton, New York, where he was serving as rabbi after leaving his long-time pulpit in Eugene. The second was only briefly a few weeks later when he dropped Yohanna off at my apartment. A few days later he was dead. His yartzeit was yesterday.
Over the years, as my relationship with Yohanna has deepened and our family has grown, I have gotten to know much about him through the people he has known. An inspirational rabbi who touched many in his work, he left a legacy. His presence and memory grow stronger now as we prepare to celebrate Ozi’s bar mitzvah.
Myron’s death inspired me to write these words, which were published in the Reconstructionist prayerbook for houses of mourning:
We can feel grief over losing someone we hardly even knew. With the loss of a young child, a new friend or a new relation, we experience the ‘death of potential’:–the grief over losing what might have been. Then we have no vast storehouses of memories to fall back on and few stories to comfort us, only the pain over lost opportunity to create those memories and stories. Yet we have a small spark of connection to nurture, a connection that has forever altered our lives.
The ability to treasure each day is what allows us to nurture that spark, and deal with the death of potential. For no matter what amount of time we have known someone, if we are attentive, then we will realize how that connection has made an impact on us.
In our Jewish calendar, we are now in a period of being attentive to time. It is the period of the Omer, which links the festivals of Passover and Shavuot. Originally an agricultural observance linking the barley harvest to the wheat harvest, the Torah instructs us to literally count each day for seven weeks, beginning with the second day of Passover. This will bring us to 49 days, with the 50th being Shavuot.
While we have lost the literal agricultural connection, the Omer still serves a theological function of linking these two holidays. As Passover celebrates the liberation from Egyptian bondage, and Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we are reminded that true freedom comes when there is a system to guarantee it. Just being free from oppression is not enough, there needs to be a means to allow for human thriving beyond just not being oppressed. We need both freedom from and freedom to. When we count each day, we note the communal journey from Exodus to Sinai, linking communal liberation with covenantal community.
The Counting of the Omer takes a mystical turn with the Jewish kabbalists who attach the Counting of the Omer with the kabbalistic tree of life, the symbolic figure of 10 divine qualities or attributes which connect us to God. Those 10 qualities are:
Keter (crown, consciousness)
Gevurah (discipline, boundaries)
Tiferet (harmony, beauty)
Netzach (endurance, perseverance)
Yesod (bonding, foundation)
The first three are considered solely in the realm of the divine. The other seven, however, are accessible to us and serve as guides for our own reality; we seek to develop these attributes within ourselves. With seven accessible attributes, seven weeks in the Omer, and seven days in a week, each week is assigned one attribute, and each day of the week is assigned a attribute. The spiritual exercise is to examine the interplay between the two qualities.
So, for example, today is the 16th day of the Omer. (We count the new day at sundown, as in keeping with the tradition of all Jewish holidays) This is the week of tiferet, and the day is gevurah. So the kavannah (intention) for this day is gevurah of tiferet, or discipline in harmony. A way to think about this, then, is how do we reach harmony in our lives not despite boundaries, but because of them? Do you see this dynamic acting in your life? (A guide for counting the Omer, by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, can be found here.)
The Counting of the Omer is a practice in treasuring each day. If we are asked to count each day, and use that counting to reflect in a meaningful way on a particular quality of our self, then we will have not only been granted an opportunity for a deeper spiritual journey within, but we will have been granted a new outlook on the importance of each and every day, each and every moment.
While the Omer anticipates Shavuot, the fact of the counting reminds us that it is as much about the journey as the destination. Indeed, it is the journey which is most important. We are taught to not just peer down the road to see what lies ahead, but rather to be in the moment with each forward step. It is in the journey that we live in the realm of potential–the possibility for what could be is what inspires us to do the work required of us.
Myron did not live to see his three children get married, his grandchildren born or his eldest daughter follow in his footsteps and become a rabbi. There is much lost potential there. Yet I know that despite its abbreviated length, Myron’s life was one of depth and richness. He truly did treasure each day, and, as the psalmist wrote, he did attain a heart of wisdom. And that example is a lasting legacy.