For many people who work in social change, myself included, it can be a struggle to balance the self confidence that can drive us to work for change in the world and to put forward big and bold ideas, with the danger of having achievement and ambition become ends in and of themselves. We act for the greater good, we hope—not solely for recognition. This struggle for balance can present an area for spiritual and personal growth. We seek lessons and wisdom for how to allow a healthy dose of ego to drive us, without it overtaking us.
We’re now in the period of the Omer, during which we count the 49 days from Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. In reflecting on this period, we can draw out some wisdom in response to these questions.
Passover, according to many traditions, is a time to let go of spiritual chametz (leavened products) as well as physical chametz. We refrain from eating bread that is puffed up to remind ourselves of the values of modesty and humility. We physically eliminate the bread of pride and arrogance from our diet for seven days, also attempting to purge these qualities from our minds and hearts.
But if chametz represents ego and arrogance, how do we explain its role in our Shabbat and Holiday celebrations, in the form of challah? More puzzling is its centrality in the Shavuot offering to God: In describing the Bikkurim (first fruits offering brought on Shavuot), the Torah specifically demands two loaves of “chametz” (Leviticus 23:17), emphasizing the use of leavened bread for this holy purpose.
How can we resolve these two conflicting understandings of chametz?
In its pure essence, chametz is not prideful. It is the element of ego that drives our ambition, the self-confidence that leads us to act and transform ourselves and our communities. Without chametz, there is no motivation, no risk taking, and thus, no accomplishment.
Pesach reminds us of how self-confidence can become dangerous in the extreme. When chametz becomes all there is, ambition becomes bloated, expanding into arrogance, into accomplishment solely for the sake of accolades. This is the prideful aspect that we strive to eliminate in our pre-Pesach soul searching and our distance from chametz during the holiday.
The Omer helps us refocus our ambition, bringing us back to the recognition of chametz as the driver that leads us to do great things for their own sake. Ultimately, the Omer is a period for self-reflection, for examining the motivation and kavanot, intentions, that underlie our desires and decisions.
This perspective helps explain why we count up during the Omer, from 1 to 49 days, as opposed to counting down. After attempting to scrape ourselves clean on Pesach from all chametz, we begin to bring back its positive attributes, taking care that each addition is genuinely motivated.
As we count each day of the Omer, we symbolically add to our ambition and our drive, slowly reinserting chametz into our lives, until the 49th day, when, hopefully, we stand with purity of intention, ready to move forward in our holy work.