“Our periods of greatest creativity came after our greatest suffering.” Those were words spoken yesterday during the gift of a private learning session with my rabbi, Aaron Bergman.
It was part of a conversation about the fate of my people, the Jews, and Rabbi Bergman’s assertion was that we have not necessarily suffered more than others – but our ability to transform suffering into meaning is our greatest legacy.
And then we discussed the Omer.
The Omer has been a thorn in my side since I first became more observant in the late 1990s. What the hell is it and why is it relevant?
I remember the frantic insistence on the second night of Passover to “count the Omer…” and if you missed one day of counting, you were done for the whole thing. Back then, there were no iPhone apps to remind you to count that day of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.
Now, Shavuot has always been my favorite holiday but most people have never heard of it. Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, those are the biggies. But Shavuot? You mean to tell me there’s yet another holiday? Those Jews…always celebrating something.
It comes late in May or early June and it’s really just a harvest agricultural holiday. But somewhere along the historical path, it became attached to Passover in the most meaningful way.
“Passover without Shavuot is anarchy,” says Rabbi Bergman. “And Shavuot without Passover is dictatorship.”
The message is, we were slaves (in Egypt, from which the Passover holiday marks the exit) and so how do we transcend that state and become more realized?
The human body is a metaphor for the connection of heaven and earth. We are the bridge between the two. And during the Omer – seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, during which we count every day, and every week, and make it mean something – we assign a different intention to each week to elevate our consciousness.
Week one: chesed, or lovingkindess. Week two: gevurah, or strength, judgment, discernment.
Week three: tiferet, which is radiance, balance, harmony. Week four: netzach, or vision/endurance.
Week five is hod or presence/gratitude, week six is yesod or foundation/connection and week seven is malchut/shechina, which is the majesty of the divine presence, the energy flow of the most high.
This is esoteric lofty stuff, I know. People don’t walk through their days thinking about how to connect heaven and earth.
But if we knew it was inherent in us, incumbent on us, would it make a difference?
Would we see the human body as these values, one for each region, until we achieve ultimate balance?
Would we understand the universal truths among us – that the seven sefirot, which I just went through, are mirror images for the yogic chakra system?
Would we get, then, that Passover symbolizes our physical liberation – focusing intensely on what we eat and cleaning out the corners of our cupboards – while Shavuot signifies our spiritual liberation from the state of a slave who blindly does what told to an elevated person in relationship with God?
This is a conversation about the war between the literal and the metaphorical, the physical and the spiritual.
When we count the Omer, we count up – 1 to 49. We don’t count down. We have a sense of expectation, anticipation, elevation. We know we are going from something dark and dreary to something light and lifted.
We picture the tablets on the mountaintop and the first holy words gifted to us from above. And we realize that perhaps the holy scriptures are more a metaphor than a literal storytelling for the wisdom inherent in the tablets, the special directions we finally received in the story of receiving the Torah is symbolic; they were with us all the time.
We just had to be awake enough to see right from wrong.
And that’s a reminder we can notice every single day of this enlightened life.
Sometimes we are not that much farther past slavery than our ancestors were millennia ago. The challenge, then, is to see each day as a form of liberation.
Today, will you be a slave to the clock, to your boss, to the work to-do list? Will you be a slave to the carpool and the running-around and get stressed because of it?
Or will you train your eyes and your actions on higher pursuits, knowing that the real worries of the world transcend the mundane?
I challenge you to make today, and every day, a liberation from slavery.
Here’s the deal: we are no better or worse than any other people. And the truth is that every person walking this globe is the same as you and me. Once we realize that these stories we spin, these rituals we adopt, these meanings we infer from the mundane are the ways we make life something more special than mere existence, that’s the moment when we elevate. Let’s live there. Every single day.