Don’t Just Mark the Jewish Holidays, Mark the Jewish Intervals

This post originally ran on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

The Jewish calendar is a bit interesting since we also live on Gregorian time. The fact that it is a lunar-based calendar means that every year the Hebrew dates shift vis-a-vis the “regular calendar” so that certain holidays, while they fall around that same time each year, will fall on a different date of the Gregorian calendar.

Internally, the Jewish calendar is also interesting in its composition, with its cycle of festivals and special days. While the Jewish calendar, like other calendars from other traditions, has a sequence of holidays to mark natural seasons and historical events; it also gives us the opportunity to focus our thoughts and spiritual energy on important ideas and values. Additionally, the Jewish calendar has a series of important “intervals” that link the various holidays, not just highlighting important days, but important times.

These times can be the holidays themselves—Passover, for example, is not one day but a week, giving us a period of time to remember the Exodus and reflect on the themes of oppression and liberation. In the fall when we celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we do not just mark those individual days, but the period of time between them takes on heightened importance as the Yamim Nora’im, “The 10 Days of Repentance”—a week and a half to reflect, repent and take stock of our lives and behaviors.

On the contemporary calendar, we just recently marked both Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The former marking the greatest tragedy of modern Jewry, and the latter marking one of modern Jewry’s greatest projects. And the six days between these two days give us the opportunity to reflect on the interplay between them: not just how the historical fact of one contributed to the historical fact of the other, but how tragedy and renewal, despair and hope, mourning and celebration are a continual cycle in our lives.

And now we are continuing through the period of the Omer, the seven-week period that links Passover and Shavuot, the festival marking the events of Sinai—the creation of the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. A biblically-ordained practice to literally count the 49 days, the Counting of the Omer has its roots in ancient agricultural cycles. Today, it serves as a means to link the themes of the two holidays: how simply breaking the chains of oppression does not lead to true freedom, but rather developing a system to guarantee those freedoms does. The Omer allow us to continue the process of leaving behind that which binds us that we began on Passover and to prepare ourselves for the new wisdom and insight that we will receive on Shavuot.

When I was reflecting on some of these ideas at my congregation over Shabbat, I was approached after the service by a congregant who is a runner. He explained to me that to be a successful runner, one needs to pay attention to the intervals—the time between runs. It is his belief that the intervals are as important if not more important than the runs themselves. We need to be able to rest and recover from one run in order to perform at our best at the next one.

The Jewish calendar and yearly holiday cycle contains similar wisdom. We celebrate and mark the important occasions. But we also need to pay attention to the intervals, the time between those occasions. They are as important as the days themselves, for they allow us to fully integrate the spiritual teachings of one holiday and prepare us to fully prepare for the next.

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.

What is Your Foundation?

When I first moved to Olympia, I had a bit of a rude awakening. In fact, the rude awakening came before I even moved to town. As my family and I were packing up in Philadelphia, I got a call from a contractor in Olympia to tell me that a backhoe had hit my house.

I’ve shared this story in the past with my congregation, in a pre-blog High Holiday sermon, but the short version is that a backhoe belonging to a contractor working for the City of Olympia installing sidewalks on my street somehow began rolling down towards my house, ramming into the side. We had come out a few months earlier and purchased the house, and we were just a few weeks away from moving when we got the call. I jumped on a plane, effectively moving myself two weeks early.

The first few days were assessing the situation and making arrangements both for repairs and a temporary place to stay. I was dealing with contractors, insurance companies, rental agents, etc. The rest of my family moved a few weeks later, and after a month’s displacement we were able to move into our house, newly repaired and even with some improvements.

During that time I learned a few things about construction and engineering. And one of the things I learned about my house is that as an older construction (it was built in the 1920s), the frame was not attached to the foundation. The backhoe was able to shift the frame of the house several inches off the foundation (in addition to poking a hole through the side), but only because it wasn’t bolted down. The repairs took care of that.

We turn our attention to foundations this week as we make our way through the journey of the Omer, the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot. This temporal journey links the themes of liberation and covenant, central to these two respective holidays. But the journey itself is notable as a time to reflect on what it means to be liberated, and what it means to be prepared to enter into covenant.

The mystical tools our tradition provides us is the assignment of a sefira, or divine quality or emanation, to each of the seven weeks. This quality then becomes the kavannah, or intention, for that week, and we can take the steps on our spiritual journey by reflecting on this quality. This week we are given the quality of yesod, or foundation.

We are familiar with what a foundation is. A foundation is the part of a structure that forms the support for the whole. It is the base on which things are built. I learned first hand about house foundations when we were fixing our house.

But we humans also have foundations. We all have the bases that support us in our lives. Our individual foundations are that which make us uniquely us. We each come to this moment in time with a history of experience, ideas, values and stories that make us who we are. These foundations form the basis for what comes next, they are what we build our lives upon.

This week of yesod, ask yourself what makes your foundation. What values do you hold? What experiences shaped you the most? What other person or people form your network of support? What traditions do you find valuable? This is your foundation.

We like to think of our foundations as being stable and secure, and they do need to be.  But while stable, foundations are not necessarily static. Our foundations are dynamic, we are always adding to them. They are continually being reinforced. Each experience, each encounter, each learning opportunity is a new chance for growth, and the opportunity to add something to our foundation. Allow yourself to be open to continually reinforce that aspect of yourself upon which you will build your future.

And like a house, we are anchored to our foundation in order to be supported.

Treasure Each Day

“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)

Hokhmah (wisdom)

Binah (understanding)

Chesed (lovingkindness)

Gevurah (discipline, boundaries)

Tiferet (harmony, beauty)

Netzach (endurance, perseverance)

Hod (humility)

Yesod (bonding, foundation)

Malchut (sovereignty)

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.

Rabbi Myron Kinberg z"l
Rabbi Myron Kinberg z”l