The Rabbi, The King, and Humility

For the past few years, my practice of counting the Omer has been connected to Tarot.

The counting of the Omer is the biblical practice of counting each day between Passover and Shavuot, the festival of freedom and the festival of covenant. Originally an agricultural practice, the counting of the Omer links the themes of these two holidays by noting that freedom is not guaranteed until we have systems in place to guarantee them.

The Kabbalists added a dimension to the counting by associating one of the divine sephirot–emanations or qualities–to each of the weeks, and one sephira to each day within the week. That way the intention of the day became the intersection of those two qualities.

I’ve added my own take on it with a partnership with my friend Emme, who is a practitioner of Tarot. Tarot in many ways is also a means of setting a spiritual intention, by drawing cards from a deck, and so we combined the two traditions.

Each week, Emme would draw a card for each day of the week. That card would be the intention for the day. We would then read it in relationship with the sephira of the week, and take turns writing an interpretation and question for the day. You can find our project on Instagram, Facebook, or its dedicated blog.

For me it has been a thoughtful exercise in setting intentions by combining traditions and spiritual practices.

Today is Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer and a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar. One of the associations with this day is the yartzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, an ancient mystic. The card that was pulled for today was the King of Swords, which is interpreted to mean on the one hand decisiveness and authority, on the other acting in haste and being quick to speak with a rush of ideas and words without being mindful about what or how one is speaking.

It is a fitting card because it reminded me of a Talmudic legend of Rabbi Shimon and how when a decree outlawed the study of Torah, Rabbi Shimon and his son hid in a cave for 12 years to study. When the decree was lifted and they emerged, they noticed people working at their jobs. Angry at what they felt was a neglect of the spiritual for the mundane, they lashed out with angry words that turned into fire and burned the fields. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them, “did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave!” It was only after another year in the cave that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was ready to reintegrate into the world.

One way of understanding this story is as a warning about the perils of the spiritual life that is removed from the day-to-day. Yes, spirituality is important, but so is being of the world. Rabbi Shimon did not understand this, and lashed out.

Which points to another warning of the story: the need to be mindful how we communicate. Rabbi Shimon’s words were angry to the point of causing flames to burst forth and scorch the fields. Was it what he said, or how he said it? It is possible to feel anger without causing harm or destruction to those around us, if we are able to think about how we channel our emotions into appropriate or inappropriate speech.

This connects with the sephira of the week, which is Hod. Hod is understood to be both splendor and humility, seemingly opposites but yet related in the sense that true splendor is in recognizing our humility. We can grow by being able to recognize our limits and what we have to learn.

When he first emerged from the cave, Rabbi Shimon was demonstrating arrogance. He felt spiritually superior to the people he saw working and lashed out. His lack of humility led to destruction. Only after being warned by God, and having more time for introspection and thought, was he able to leave the cave in a greater state of humility, recognizing how he went wrong.

It is a custom on Lag B’Omer to light bonfires, an allusion to this story. Fire, like words, can create, and fire, like words, can destroy. Let us exercise our humility to be mindful of this power.

 

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