I want to share with you something really deep. According to the Jewish calendar, we are now the in 49 day period of time between Pesach and Shavuot that is known as Sefirat HaOmer. The holiday of Pesach is associated with the Jewish people's liberation from slavery, and the holiday of Shavuot is associated with the gathering of the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Sefirat HaOmer can be translated as "Counting the Omer," and in ancient Israel, during Temple times, a special harvest of barley, the first of the season, was cut the night after Pesach, to be offered 49 days later on Shavuot, this is known as the Omer offering. Each Jewish holiday is associated with a certain guidelines as well as spiritual practices, known as mitzvot. For instance, Rosh Hashanah is associated with the mitzvah of blowing the shofar, and Passover is connected to the mitzvah of eating matzah. Sefirat HaOmer is associated with the mitzvah of declaring out loud what day of the Omer it is, starting from the first day after Pesach and counting up to the 49th day. In order to understand the deeper significance of the mitzvah of counting the Omer, I want to share with you a bit about myself and the Jewish calendar.
For me, growing up Jewish basically meant bagels and lox, the Holocaust and my Bar Mitzvah. I was an uninformed Jewish boy from New Jersey, and I thought Judaism was a cultural accident connected to a boring and mindless religion. Then, when I was 21, I traveled to Israel and discovered a Judaism that I had never seen before -- that being Jewish was much more than a cultural identity or an old, dusty religion. I discovered that Judaism is a spiritual path. I met rabbis and teachers who showed me that what I perceived to be mindless rituals were actually part of a Jewish mindfulness practice, but that I needed to understand them in the right context. That in the same way the Dalai Lama is a lineage-holder in the Buddhist tradition and practices the Dharma of the Buddha, I was a lineage-holder in the Jewish tradition and could practice the Torah of Moses. I decided to extend my visit to Israel and to study the Torah in order to go deeper into its wisdom and find out more about Judaism as a spiritual path.
One of the things I learned was that the Jewish calendar and its view of time was very different than the one I am familiar with. Growing up, time in a sense was existentially empty, there was no essential quality to it, time did not inherently matter. The astronomical reality of the seconds, minutes and hours that made up my day, the days that made up my week, which made up my month, which made up my years, which added up to make my life, were were also inherently void of any meaning. If I did find time periods meaningful, it was a purely personal subjective experience. This is very different than the Jewish perspective of time. From a Jewish perspective, time itself has an essential quality or qualities to it. Time is alive. Time is inherently meaningful and pregnant with purpose that influences that which exists in time. I discovered that the Jewish Calendar is a time-map, in which a person experiences the sacred of qualities of time, and the landmarks which make up this map are the Jewish Holidays. The holidays themselves and the stories they recount and celebrate are not just stories, they are metaphors for the inner journey of the soul as it travels throughout the year.
For example, in the Jewish week a division is made between the six days of the week and the seventh day: the weekly holiday of the Sabbath. Time during the "six days of the week" (Saturday night to Friday afternoon) is associated with the quality of "doing," and the seventh day, the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening), is associated with the quality of "being," with rest. In the rhythm of the Jewish calendar, there is an ebb and flow from the six days of the week into the Sabbath, and from the Sabbath back into the six days of the week. The entrance into the Sabbath is celebrated by the kindling of Shabbat candles, and when I am in the seventh day, I am in Shabbos consciousness, I remember that I am a human "being" and not a human "doing."
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls Shabbat "a Palace in Time" -- that time itself on the Sabbath is Holy. There is a Talmudic teaching that food tastes different on the Sabbath, that there is a Shabbat spice that can only be tasted on the seventh day. At the end of Shabbat the ritual of Havdalah (which means "to separate") is performed by kindling a multi-wicked candle to differentiate that I am now moving from the time of being of the seventh day back into the time of doing of the six days of the week. This is a very different experience than the mechanical change over from Saturday to Sunday at the stroke of midnight.
The shape of Jewish time is also different. For most of my life I conceived of time as being a linear progression, one day following the next. Yesterday was the past, today is the present and tomorrow is the future. My life has a beginning a middle, and an end, and the shape time made as it unfolded was a straight line, a "time line" so to speak. Rabbi Natan of Breslov, an 18th century Jewish mystic and spiritual leader, teaches that time does not progress an in exclusively linear fashion -- that the past, so to speak, repeats itself in the future but in a new form. According to the teachings of the Torah, history does not unfold along a time-line but a time-spiral. For example, the High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah celebrates among many things -- the anniversary of the creation of Humankind, of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden -- and Torah teaches that on Rosh Hashanah a person should act like his or her best, actualized self, because the qualities of time that have returned on Rosh Hashanah empower a person to create his self and who he will be for the coming year. Movement on a spiral implies growth: In traveling on a spiral, there is a circular motion revolving around a center, but it is also combined with a vertical movement. You don't come back to the same place you started but a similar place farther along the spiral.
In the Jewish calendar, the qualities of journeying from Egypt toward Mt. Sinai, the time between Pesach and Shavuot, have come back into our time. The practice of counting the days of the Omer, the consciousness of Sefirat HaOmer, is one of spiritually climbing up. Each day represents a rung on a ladder of consciousness in which the climber is ascending toward the Divine. Before counting the Omer a blessing is made on the act of counting. The Jewish spiritual practice of making a blessing, a bracha is an opportunity to stop running, to step out of autopilot, into the present moment, and to focus on what is in front of us. Many people are familiar with the idea of making a blessing or giving thanks for bread, or wine, in the case of Sefirat HaOmer what is in front of us is something intangible, we are thanking God for our ability to journey through time, a time that is part of a cosmic movement toward collective awakening.
Rabbi Judah Leow, otherwise known as the Maharal, a 16th century Jewish Talmudist and Kabbalist, teaches that the number seven is associated with nature, and the number eight in Jewish mysticism is associated with beyond nature. The 49 days of Sefirat HaOmer is seven weeks times seven day. After we count the weeks comes the 50th day, the day of Shavuot. The Maharal calls Shavuot the Sabbath of Sabbaths. This is a time totally beyond nature. This is what is so deep, when we count the Omer we are not just counting the days, we are aligning ourselves with the flow of Divine time, and we are making a declaration and statement of intent to build our soul into a structure over these 49 days, in which we prepare a dwelling place for HaShem (the Jewish name for God, used to teach that God is beyond any name). The culmination of this process is 50th day, Shavuot, in which the impossible happens and in the collective and individual soul of the Jewish people, a bridge is made between Heaven and Earth, a covenant between the finite and the Infinite, and this is the revelation of the Torah at Sinai.
Today is 37 days, which are five weeks and two days, to the Omer!
For more on the Omer, join the conversation and community by visiting the liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual renewal between Passover and Shavuot.