Counting Cards

In the Jewish calendar we are currently in the period of the Omer.

Originally, in the Torah, the Omer is a means to mark harvests. An omer is a sheaf of barley, and we are told to count the days between the festivals of Passover and Sukkot, to count the time between harvest seasons. As we moved away from a purely agrarian society, the Omer period took on more historical meaning—it linked Passover, the festival marking the story of the Exodus, or the Israelites leaving slavery in Egypt, to Shavuot, the festival marking the story of Sinai, the Israelites receiving the Torah and forming a new covenant.

It’s this latter meaning that has taken on import today. It is a reminder that the freedom from oppression was not complete until there was a new societal system in place to guarantee these new freedoms. It is a good social justice lesson—that we must work to overturn systems of oppression, but we must be careful not to replace them with different systems of oppression.

And the Omer too is a personal spiritual journey: having liberated ourselves from that which confines us—our own personal Egypts—we seek to grow in wisdom and knowledge—our own personal Sinais.

The Jewish mystics understood this aspect of the Omer journey, that the time on the calendar between Egypt and Sinai is a time to be spent in preparation to receive the wisdom and knowledge we need to receive. It is, in a way, an extension of or the next chapter of the Exodus: now that we are liberated, we seek to use our new found liberation to continue to grow.

To mark each day (and the ritual practice is to literally count each day—every evening first to recite an appropriate blessing for the practice than to “announce” the day) the mystics first assigned each week one of seven sephirot, or divine qualities or “emanations.” There are actually ten in the traditional understanding, but they are seen as hierarchical, connecting the human and the divine, and the “top three” are seen as existing solely in the realm of the divine. The “lower seven” are accessible to and able to be made manifest by humans.

These seven sephirot are (and note the translations are not exact, each sephira embodies embodying multiple facets):

  • Chesed (lovingkindness, compassion)
  • Gevurah (strength, discipline)
  • Tiferet (beauty, harmony)
  • Netzach (endurance, victory)
  • Hod (splendor, glory)
  • Yesod (foundation, basis)
  • Malchut (sovereignty, indwelling presence)

Then, each day within a week is assigned a sephira. So each day of the Omer becomes an exercise in reflection as we are meant to reflect on the intersection of the two sephirot.

The assignments for each day doesn’t change each year, but since we do, this is sometimes enough to find new meaning each year in this annual practice. This year, however, I embarked on a new Omer counting practice, joining up again with Kirsten, my Carpooling partner.

Kirsten is a student of Tarot (as viewers of the series will know!). I had not known much about Tarot myself beyond basic cursory knowledge, but from what I learned from Kirsten, an aspect of the practice that resonated with me is how the cards can be used for setting an intention. Each card carries a particular meaning, and the act of drawing cards for a particular circumstance is a way of setting that intention for oneself, a personal kavannah.

In a conversation about the Omer, we hit on the idea: Kirsten draws a card for each day of the Omer, and we communicate about the intersection between the meaning of the day based in the Jewish mystical tradition and the card that she selected for that day. We would then write an intention for the day to go alongside an image of the card. So, we did it. We have been calling it “Omer with Tarot,” and you can find it (and follow it) on Facebook, Instagram and on a dedicated website.

Our practice is, on the one hand, a great way to simply maintain the daily practice of counting, one that I admit I am sometimes a bit lax about. But being accountable to thinking about the day, the card, the sephirot, the intention and then collaborating on writing something has been a good way to count each day.

In addition, it’s been a wonderful and powerful exercise in thinking broadly about spiritual practice, of dialogue among different practices and traditions and of opening myself up to engaging with Jewish tradition in new and interesting and thought provoking ways.

And that, in and of itself, embodies the spirit of the Omer: how can we open ourselves up to receive wisdom, no matter from where it may come? On the way to Sinai the Israelites were preparing to receive a new source of teaching and guidance which they had not experienced previously, a new source of teaching and guidance that would give shape to their lives and set a new intention for their future.

As we make our own spiritual journey of the Omer, we do the same.

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