The other day I had one of those revelations when after you have it, you realize how obvious it should have been all along. More on that in a moment.
We are currently in the period of the Omer. On the second night of Passover, we started the practice of counting the Omer-counting the days between Passover, the festival of freedom marking the story of the exodus, and Shavuot, the festival of covenant marking the story of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
In the Torah narrative, after the Israelites led by Moses crossed the Red Sea and left Egyptian slavery for good, they traveled to Mount Sinai. There they camped at the foot of the mountain and Moses ascended to meet with God. God gave Moses the Torah, the new set of laws and values they are to live by, thus forming a covenantal community of which we are the spiritual inheritors. This is what we celebrate on Shavuot.
In the Torah, the linking of the two festivals has an agricultural basis. Both festivals have agricultural roots marking stages in the spring harvest. The Israelites during the time the Temple stood would bring an offering of an Omer-a sheaf of barley-to the Temple and then count the days until a wheat offering was to be brought. After the Temple, the Omer period linking the two holidays took on a new meaning, highlighting the deep connection between freedom and communal structure. In order to truly be free, we need a system of communal organization that guarantees that freedom and allows for the full spiritual development of the individual and community.
The Omer is also a period of time for reflection and spiritual growth as well. The kabbalists-the Jewish mystics-took a spiritual approach to the Omer applying to this 49 day period an overlay of kabbalistic concepts. Within Kabbalah is the representation of the human connection to God through 10 sephirot, or divine emanations. These 10 also represent different qualities of God and when represented in their traditional format-a Tree of Life-represents both a hierarchy to the emanations as well as a path that one could take to reach the divine.
The 10 represent divine qualities, but also a means by which-through reflecting on how those qualities are represented in ourselves-we can attain spiritual depth and growth. From a Kabblaistic standpoint, the top three emanations are wholly at home in the realm of God, and so therefore are out of our reach. They are Keter (crown), hochmah (wisdom) and binah (understanding).
The lower seven, on the other hand, represent qualities which we can embody and live by. They are more accessible to our human capacity. They are chesed (lovingkindness), gevurah (strength), tiferet (beauty), netzach (endurance), hod (splendor), yesod (foundation) and malchut (presence).
To connect this to the Omer, since there are 7 weeks in the Omer, and 7 days in the week, and 7 sephirot with which to engage, the mystics assign a sephirah to each week, then repeat the pattern for each day of the week. (Imagine a 7 x 7 grid) So then each day of the Omer is an examination of the interplay of two sephirot, and as we count the Omer each day, we take time to mediate on what these sephirot mean, and how we might interpret the intersection of the two. For example, this week is the week of tiferet (beauty) and today, May 1, is the day of gevurah (strength). On this 16th day of the Omer, how might we locate strength in beauty? And as gevurah is sometimes understood to be boundaries and discernment, what role does discernment play in observing or creating beauty? [An example of this approach can be found here.]
So here is where I got hit with the obvious. Under this system, the same day of the week each week will be the same sephira. I had always looked at the Omer as week to week: each week is the same sephira and the days change. But what if we look at it from the perspective of the day? Then the day is always the same, but the week’s sephira changes. Now this might not have much meaning if we are just thinking about Sunday or Thursday, for example. But what about Shabbat? When we count the Omer using this kabbalistic framework, Shabbat will always be the same sephira.
This year, the sephira of Shabbat is netzach-endurance. So rather than comparing it to the sephira of the week, what if we just take a moment to reflect on the interplay of netzach and Shabbat? The endurance of Shabbat?
On the one hand, it might seem contradictory to think about endurance, or physical strength and energy, on a day set aside for rest. But maybe the way to think about it is that we need Shabbat-we need time to rest, find renewal, recharge ourselves-so that we will be able to have endurance in our lives. Reflecting on endurance on Shabbat reminds us that endurance is important, but so is taking a break. Indeed, if we don’t take a break, our endurance for our pursuits will be short lived.
And the ability to take the time that we need requires a bit of endurance. In our world in which we are pulled in so many directions, it requires endurance and focus to be able to take time out and just be. The irony is that it takes effort to rest. To give the time to the things that enrich us. To allow ourselves to do the want-to-do rather than just the need-to-do.
But it is so important. We need Shabbat and the values it brings to our lives. It is a gift to us that we need to apply to our own lives in a way that is meaningful and enriching. And human society has realized this from generation to generation. After all, Shabbat is an ancient tradition carried forward into the present day. The observance of Shabbat itself endures.