Counting the Omer

| holidays, meditations, musings |

I’ve been reading a lot about the mitzvah (commandment/good deed) of “counting the omer.” The word “omer” translates to “measure,” and the practice began with the measuring of grain to be offered at the ancient Temple. Now, we’re not counting grain, but we’re counting days- from the second night of Passover to Shavuot, when the Israelites are given the Torah at Mount Sinai. Seven weeks, forty-nine days from Exodus to Revelation. The mystical practice of counting the omer is based on the bottom seven of the ten sephirot, divine emanations, Kabbalah‘s Tree of Life. The Kabalists taught that each week and each day is represented by one divine quality. I’ll break it down (with Rabbi Simon Jacobson‘s definitions):

  1. Chesed – lovingkindness/benevolence
  2. Gevorah – justice/discipline/restraint/awe
  3. Tiferet – beauty/harmony/compassion
  4. Netzach: endurance/fortitude/ambition
  5. Hod – humility/splendor
  6. Yesod – bonding/foundation
  7. Malchut – nobility/sovereignty/leadership

So, the first week is focused on chesed. The first day of the first week is a time to meditate on “chesed she’b'chesed” or “lovingkindness within lovingkindness.” What does this mean? I’m not sure. I’ve seen a few descriptions that don’t make any sense, but I think it’s an opportunity to to look deeply at our capacity to love, generosity of love, and expression of love. The second day of the first week is focused on gevurah of chesed- discipline in lovingkindness. This day can look at boundaries, respect, and sensitivity. Zooming ahead, the sixth day of the third week would be yesod of tiferet- bonding in compassion. This is a time to concentrate on the foundation of compassion, what is motivating and sustaining harmony in your life? Etc, etc, etc. Hopefully that all made sense.

It’s a beautiful structure, and I have a handy little calendar that I flip each day to be reminded of what to think about. At the top of the calendar is the counting part “Today is eight days, which are one week and one day, of the Omer.” That might be my favorite part. The simple reminder of counting, of having a timeline, is comforting. I like calendars; I like planning. Even if the plans change, especially when the plans change, it’s somehow freeing to have a a whole net below of goals, flowcharts, step-by-steps.

When I first learned how to meditate, I spent a lot of time counting my breath. I learned to count each cycle of inhalation and exhalation, up to “nine,” and then start again at “one.” For a long time, I probably never made it past four. I would start counting on each exhale, “one… two… three…” and then my mind would wander. At some point, I’d bring my attention back to counting, starting again at “one.” Once in a while, I would count up to nine, start again, back to nine, start again, but not often. Realizing that it didn’t matter how many times I was able to correctly do this counting exercise was a great moment. I wasn’t being graded, failure wasn’t a possibility, enlightenment wasn’t waiting behind nine breaths, it was just a practice. And knowing that I could always start over at “one,” was like a backup plan. It was hard for me to understand that it was okay to daydream, to wander away from my concentration practice. Now I believe that the wandering is actually part of learning discipline.

In these forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot, we’re mimicking the Israelites wandering; through the sea, through the desert, to the mountain. We need this time of accounting, counting, and preparing for revelation. We just celebrated, at the Passover seders, freedom from slavery. As we meditate on each day, counting the omer, we are examining our lives and our own divine attributes. The idea is that, through this practice, we can see how to keep moving towards liberation and not slip back into whatever may enslave us. We’re measuring ourselves and counting down (or up) to a time when we can defy our own limitations, be receptive, and feel free.

Now, go count from the second night of Passover, figure out which week and day you’re at, and take a moment to see which quality of which attribute you’re supposed to be meditating on. Whether you’re at home or work or somewhere else entirely, allow yourself a moment to take a breath and meditate on this particular day of the counting of the omer.