Counting The Omer: 49 Days Of Jewish Spiritual Reflection (LIVEBLOG)

03/28/2013 07:16 pm ET

Why is this liveblog different from all other liveblogs?

On Passover, perhaps Judaism's most widely observed holiday, secular and religious Jews alike recall the story of the Israelites' exodus from slavery in Egypt. On Shavuot, perhaps Judaism's most-important-least-observed festival, a smaller contingent of the Jewish people celebrates receiving the Torah.

In between these joyous mile-markers of past desert wanderings, even fewer modern Jews observe the Counting of the Omer, a 49-day period of self-reflection and spiritual renewal.

HuffPost Religion would like to change that. Here, throughout Sefirat HaOmer, as it's called in Hebrew, we offer the opportunity to ascend the 49 levels of renewal as part of a virtual Omer community. Each day, we will update this liveblog with spiritual intentions, prayers, Scripture, poems, art and reflections from our bloggers and readers related to that day's spiritual energy.

We welcome your participation. Please send an email to religion@huffingtonpost.com with your Omer inspirations.

05/14/2013 2:23 PM EDT

Wake Up! God Is Speaking

As the wedding section grows in May and June, I am reminded of my own wedding day. The sky seemed bluer that day, the dress seemed whiter, and the cake seemed sweeter.

As newlyweds, we danced and rejoiced, filled with sensation. And then for the first time, we entered our apartment and fell asleep, deep in a dream filled state, until 3 a.m., when my wife and I were suddenly awakened by the fire station across the street. The siren roared and we reared. The sound was earth shaking, for about 30 seconds, until the silence returned and we went back to sleep.

The next day, our first as a married couple, was magical, even if we were a bit tired. Everything went according to plan until 3 a.m. that is, when once again the siren roared and we were stirred from our sleep. Who knew to stand outside our apartment at 3 a.m. before signing a lease?

But we enjoyed our second day together. How could we not? We were newlyweds. We were tired, but everything was new and spring filled. But on the third night, something extraordinary happened: we slept ... and slept and slept. We slept through the entire night.

I woke up and bounded out the door, finding the neighbor across the street. "Finally, the siren didn't go off," I exclaimed. "No," she said, "the siren goes off every night. You just don't hear it anymore." And she was right. It only takes three nights to no longer hear a ground shaking alarm. It's really quite amazing. In an effort to protect us, the brain filters out the sound, no longer stirring us to life.

Thank God, for the next four years that we lived in that apartment there never was an actual fire in our apartment. I'm convinced that we would have never awakened until it was too late. Yes the brain tries to protect us, but it also risks filtering out the wrong things. How many other sensations did we no longer hear, taste or feel?

This week, we read from the longest portion in the entire Torah, Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89). Naso is filled with words and details that could desensitize any careful reader. And so, the portion open with the word naso, meaning "lift up" and "count." It is a command to pay attention and count what is most important (the immediate context being a census).

That's why Naso happens in the desert, where the landscape is vast and seemingly monotonous. It's easy to let one grain of sand blend into the next. Sometimes, life is not much different. The days merge together, but Naso reminds us to count each and every moment. Record every single individual before you. Don't fall asleep.

Interestingly, there is a tradition to stay up all night on the holiday of Shavuot (commemorating the giving of the Torah by God to the Children of Israel), the holiday we celebrate within days of reading this Torah portion. We don't want to miss anything important.

Shavuot is our reminder that in our awakened state, we can hear vastly more. After all, that's what happened to Moses and the Israelites at Mount Sinai. We celebrate Shavuot this week not because God spoke to our ancient ancestors for the very first or last time. We celebrate Shavuot because it was then at Mount Sinai that the Children of Israel heard so much more.

In fact, according to a midrashic teaching in Exodus Rabbah (29:9), no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed. The whole world stood silent, listening carefully to God's great teaching.

We too can have these moments of revelation. God speaks each and every day. Naso is a reminder to pay close attention and wake up to the world around us. Turn off the noise and see the beauty. Don't sleep through the sacred dimensions of life.

On Shavuot, it is as though we are at a wedding, and we and God are the newlyweds. The sky is bluer, and the dress is whiter and the cake is sweeter. Revelation.

-- Rabbi Joel Sissenwine

05/14/2013 2:16 PM EDT

Sefirah Self

malchut of malchut

Malchut sh'b Malchut self portrait. I attempted to trace all of the thoughts and feelings from my heart to its Source, to better understand how the divine dwells within me and to reflect on these past 49 days. Thank you, G!d, for guiding me, supporting me, loving me and holding me. May this festival of feast and revelation be of sustenance both physically and spiritually. Love to you all, thanks for the journey.

-- Dorielle Brooke

05/14/2013 2:12 PM EDT

Look Inside

Today I am a Pot
May my outer self portray
My inner self
awakened, conscious, mindful
of the wholeness, the harmony,
the strength,
the character, the integrity,
and the honesty of a good pot,
half-filled or half-empty,
standing upright,
glazed or not.

Gaze upon me
or fill me with nature's treasures:
tea leaves, a sunflower, pebbles, a pod,
seashells, lavender buds, fruit, or a feather.

Friends
Discover even more pleasure
Divine truth
when you look inside.
Find loving-kindness, discernment, compassion, beauty,
endurance, awe, gratitude, connection and soul's uniqueness.

Sephirat HaOmer's 49 Days
With conscious kavanah / intention
I've transformed
with flow from my vessel.

-- Joy Krauthammer

05/14/2013 1:06 PM EDT

Divine Presence Within Majesty

malkhut of malkhut

Visit Mishkan Shalom for today's meditation from Rabbi Yael Levy, who explained the Counting of the Omer last year on HuffPost.

05/14/2013 9:54 AM EDT

Thinking Outside the Book: Shavuot and the Great Torah Download

In the Jewish calender, the holiday of Shavuot is about to return into the flow of time. Shavuot celebrates the day when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. But what is meant by the word "Torah"? Many people associate the word "Torah" with the Five books of Moses, but according to Jewish wisdom, the Torah and what was given at Mt. Sinai was much more than a book.

Translated, the word Torah means "instruction" or "teaching." Judaism teaches that at Mt. Sinai, when God gave the Torah, both a Written Torah and an Oral Torah was given. The Written Torah is what we know as the Five Books of Moses, traditionally known in Judaism as the Chumash. The Oral Torah was something different, it was and is a living body of knowledge covering every aspect of life, from taxes and zoning laws to spirituality and sex, that has been evolving throughout history for more than 3,000 years until today. Included in the Oral Torah are instructions about how to interpret and understand the Written Torah. In fact, there are many passages in the Chumash that cannot be understood without the Oral Torah.

For example take the passage found in Deuteronomy 11:18: "You shall put these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall tie them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes." Nowhere in the Chumash are instructions given as to what these "words" that were to be a "sign" and "totafot" are. The Oral Torah teaches that what is being described in this passage are called Tefillin. Tefillin are leather boxes containing four parchments on which are written certain key passages from the Chumash, and they worn on the arm and forehead. Pairs of Tefillin were discovered in the Qumran archeological site (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) dating back to around 1,900 years ago. These ancient Tefillin were constructed according to the insturctions given in the Oral Torah and were made in the same way that Jewish scribes make Tefillin today.

On a deeper level, the Torah (both written and oral) given at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot is the spiritual path of the Jewish nation. When the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai it was not given to an individual, it was given to the people of Israel. In the book of Exodus, God says to the Jewish people that they are to be a "kingdom of priests." In many monastic and priestly traditions, adherents withdraw from society, from the marketplace, even from having a family in order to focus on Truth or God or Being (pick your word for whatever it is that is beyond any concept). This is not the Jewish path. Judaism cannot be practiced alone, it is meant to be experienced in communion, in relationship both to others and to God. Judaism is a worldly religion, but the goal of Judaism is beyond the world.

The Torah given at Mt. Sinai is also a body of laws governing Jewish life which is known as Halacha. To function in a healthy way, a nation in the world needs laws. When literally translated, Halacha means "the way" or "the walk." These laws are meant to cultivate an awareness of the presence of God in all areas of life, from economic, to familial, to spiritual. God is not just in the synagogue, God is in the kitchen, and the boardroom. To follow Halacha is a spiritual practice, and when followed the mundane becomes Holy. When you are feeding your child, you are not just feeding your child, you are serving God. There is even a word used to describe how Halacha is meant to be practiced, which is with kavannah (this idea is based on the teachings of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan). Kavannah can be loosely translated as "aim" or "intention." A Jewish life is meant to be lived in such a way that in every moment, a person is present, thinking and acting mindfully. Living with intention, with kavannah, is the opposite of living on autopilot. Halacha when practiced with kavannah re-contextualizes life into a sacred ritual, which allows the depths of life, the innate Divinity within life, to come forth.

There is a teaching from the Oral Torah: The reason the Torah was given in the desert is to teach us that in order to receive, like the desert, we need to be empty. This Shavuot may God bless us to let go of any preconceptions of what we think is true, and to be open to hear God speaking to us personally, and that we find our letter in the Torah.

-- Eitan Press (@EitanQuest)

05/14/2013 8:54 AM EDT

The Mystery of Shavuot and What It Means About Business

According to Jewish tradition, the upcoming festival of Shavuot (literally "Weeks") is the anniversary of the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Oddly though, we find no clear link in the Bible between the Shavuot festival and the giving of the Torah. Unlike Sukkot, which the Bible describes as the remembrance of the 40 years in the Wilderness, and unlike Passover, described as the exodus from Egypt, there is no apparent historic meaning to Shavuot. Shavuot is actually described as the festival of the seven weeks of field harvest, and the Torah asks us to count seven weeks from the first barley, the first day after Passover, to the first wheat when Shavuot occurs. So how did Shavuot become the festival of the giving of the Torah?

The Kabbalah describes these seven weeks of harvest as seven weeks of self-refinement: transitioning from being slaves fleeing Egypt to becoming free men deserving to receive the Ten Commandments directly from G-d. How does this period of counting seven weeks, the equivalent of 49 days, help us to become better human beings and to truly transform ourselves?

Every week, for seven weeks, we are asked to refine one of our seven basic emotions: Love, Respect, Mercy, Trust, Sincerity, Truth and Humility. Every day of the week, we correct one aspect of the corresponding emotion. For example during the first week, the week of Love, the first day corresponds to Love within Love. That day we meditate how to love without boundaries and without restrictions, the way we love and give to a newborn. The second day is the day of Respect within Love: we meditate on how to love and give while maintaining respect for the recipient of our love without overwhelming our loved one; for example, a teenage child. This rectification of the basic emotions, using our mind and awareness, until we get to the seventh day of the seventh week which is the day of Humility within Humility, empowers us to reflect on our relationships with others and to refine our personality.

This mental process enables us to receive the Torah as we have achieved the 49 gates of knowledge, which correspond to the counting of every day during the seven weeks. Why do we not count the 50th day as it says, "You shall count 50 days," a requirement which seems to conflict with the counting of seven weeks?

The Torah wants to teach us here that the summit of knowledge and self-refinement is actually to know that we can't know. The 50th gate of knowledge, the knowledge of G-d's essence, remains sealed to human beings. So G-d actually counts for us the 50th day to complete our 49 days of counting.

In a world that is changing so rapidly, where new knowledge is created and made available on the Internet every second, the true purpose of knowledge is to know that we can't know and that our knowledge remains limited. We will never fully comprehend this complex reality. Every human theory or business plan which tries to forecast how markets will react to our new products is by definition limited. Nevertheless, we still need to learn and climb the 49 gates of knowledge to actually fully understand the limitation of our knowledge. This knowledge of our own limitation is actually the key to business success. Only when we reach this level of awareness, we are able to better listen to co-workers, to customers, to the world around us. We refine our original plan and remain attentive to the changing reality.

That's actually the exact message of the giving of the Torah making Shavuot the right time to remember that monumental moment. God believes in Humanity and gives us an infinite Torah which He used as the blueprint of world creation. Like the changing world, the Torah remains infinite and it has been given to human beings despite or actually because of our limitations and it is up to us to learn from it, to grow with it, to refine our seven basic emotions to better listen to others and to reality, while we remember that the summit of knowledge is to know that we don't know.

-- Yaacov Cohen (@yaacovc)

05/14/2013 8:08 AM EDT

Managing Life's Transitions With The Omer

Imagine that you are walking through the desert -- for 40 years, day after day, week after week. You and 20,000 of your closest friends and tribal members move through the wilderness, in hopes of a better life.

You become hot and cold and hungry and tired. Shelter comes and goes. Everything appears wide open. The uncertainty of the wilderness seems disorienting yet exhilarating. To restore some order and structure to the wide-open landscape, you -- well, all 20,000 of you -- try to build a holy space in the desert by using specific measurements, materials and lots of detail. "Much as we may wish to make a new beginning, some part of us resists doing so as though we were making the first step towards disaster" explains English Professor Dr. William Bridges in his book "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes."

Vulnerable to desert storms, the winds, the sun, environmental and situational conditions, we begin to doubt if we will ever get there, only we don't even know where there is. After months of pitching a tent together, shlepping, hauling materials and not reaching the goal, the people around you start to get on your nerves. Complaining and blaming seem tempting because frankly it is easier than facing what is actually happening. Beneath the surface, massive changes are tugging at your hearts as your identity, security and reality are being forced to change. Tension emerges as you wonder who you are and where you are going.

This is the story of the Jewish people in the wilderness as we prepare for revelation. This is also the narrative of what sometimes happens for individuals and families who undergo traumatic experiences of illness, injury and loss. Shift happens, and it ain't easy.

On the Jewish calendar, "the transition time between leaving oppression [Passover] and arriving at the Promised Land [Shavuot] takes us to a desert that tests us and our leadership. That transition taught us a great deal about what it took to prepare and confront uncertainty and how important vision is," writes Jewish Educator Dr. Erica Brown. We count the Omer, or the wheat harvest, for 49 days. The Omer marks a major transition period for the Jewish people and for the earth. We are becoming a new people, on new ground, and letting go of our former identity and memories as slaves. The earth provides her bountiful harvest which allows us to survive. Physically and psychically, we are tested.

Life also tests us. When tragedy, illness and accidents occur, our worldview morphs immediately. Stability is shaken as reality turns upside down. We try to stop the suffering but we can't. The question emerges: What can we hold onto? What will help to nurture and sustain us? Dr. Brown explains that it is hard to "rebuild trust after authority breaks down." Yet it is possible.

The Omer offers three powerful lessons about life's transitions:

1. Go gradually. Step by step, day by day. When traveling to new lands or trying out new lifestyles, go slowly. Make life manageable by breaking it down into smaller parts, especially amid murky waters.

2. Small steps count and can be a source of blessing. The small steps are not only important but they represent the source of our blessings. Although grandiosity has its allure, short blessings count and enable us to get to the next day.

3. Each step prepares us for what comes next. We cannot just jump from one big milestone to another. Down-time is required. There is an invisible journey that we undergo to restore our energy and prepare for whatever may follow. Quiet time and restful space are required.

The Omer says we must go slowly. We cannot dictate the pace. We can cultivate support systems, count our blessings each day and develop relationships with compassionate mentors and friends. Regardless of what negativity may arise, we keep counting our blessings.

Transformative experiences involve a combination of pain, growth and wisdom. May we learn to mitigate the pain and be available for receiving more of the fruits.

-- Aviva Perlo

05/14/2013 7:42 AM EDT

Sovereignty of Sovereignty

Rabbi Simon Jacobson on the final day of the Omer and beyond:

Examine the sovereignty of your sovereignty. Does it come from deep-rooted inner confidence in myself? Or is it just a put-on to mask my insecurities? Does that cause my sovereignty to be excessive? Am I aware of my uniqueness as a person? Of my personal contribution?

Exercise for the day: Take a moment and concentrate on yourself, on your true inner self, not on your performance and how you project to others; and be at peace with yourself knowing that G-d created a very special person which is you.

Upon concluding these forty nine days we come to the fiftieth day -- Mattan Torah, when we have fully achieved inner renewal by merit of having assessed and developed each of our forty nine attributes.

What is the significance of the fiftieth day Mattan Torah? After we have achieved all we can accomplish through our own initiative, then we receive a gift (mattana in Hebrew) from above that which could not achieve with our limited faculties. We receive the ability to actually reach and touch the divine; not only to be cultivated human beings who have refined each of their personal characteristics, but divine human beings, who are capable of expressing above and beyond their defined hum an emotions, but actually express that which is unexpressable and undefinable in human terms; the most intimate emotions that transcend the forty nine defined attributes.

05/14/2013 7:33 AM EDT

Day 49: Malkhut of Malkhut

malkhut of malkhut

From Yitzchok Moully (@JewishPopArt, Facebook), who painted all 49 days for a project called "Abstract Omer." He reflects on today's energy:

The purpose and sum total of self-betterment is not for the self, but rather to impact another.

At the conclusion of the Omer we need to take the lessons we have learned, the gains we have made, and find a way to use it to perfect the world around us. That is the whole purpose of a person, to grow and become, and help others grow and become.

Please G-D, may we receive the Torah with joy in an internal and real way!

05/13/2013 6:42 PM EDT

Solid Ground

From TorahBuzz:

Yesod in Malchut –- the solid balancing point in the wholeness that rules useful doings.

Our best steps start from solid ground. Bringing all the ingredients together to create that stable starting off spot requires all the principles that we have reflected on up until now.

Find that spot, build it even, and then take the next step trusting in our preparations, hoping for the best, and maintain openness to all the unpredictability that may ensue!

Prepare, plan, set our feet solidly, and then go and do!

Almost through the Omer now – we look towards Shavuot on Tuesday night.

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