COUNTING THE OMER –
A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY PRACTICE
According to Jewish tradition, we count the forty-nine days (7 weeks) from when we become free from our slavery until our arrival at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where we receive Torah (Wisdom.) This is known as “Counting the Omer/Sefirat HaOmer.” This period of time was originally rooted in the spring harvest. An omer is a measure of grain. Detached from its agricultural roots, “Counting the Omer” became known as a season of soul refinement. Following Pesach, we begin the journey toward spiritual freedom, unlocking the shackles of all that oppresses us and readying ourselves to be open to inner wisdom.
We count the Omer in a careful and focused manner in order to help us recognize the completeness of these days and of each day.
This year, we are all in a particular place of having been closed up in one way or another, or in many ways. Being held in place can generate inertia; we know that time continued forward, and we stayed put in our existing state of being and waiting. Lack of physical movement can actually make our joints stiff; lack of spiritual movement can make our souls stuck. At this moment in time, we are seeing places and times opening up around us, and it can be hard for us to know how we go forward, how we re-enter the journeys of our lives. We were closed off for safety and protection; this journey gives us the opportunity to explore how we reconnect with ourselves and one another to trust being open once more.
The daily practice will begin each evening, with the reciting of the following blessing:
בָּרוּךְ אֲתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעוֹמֵר
Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al sefirat ha’omer.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with mitzvot, and commands us concerning the counting of the Omer.
And so, we begin this year’s journey of counting our days and making them count.
“[At the seder] we began – once again – to live inside a metaphor. We imagined ourselves leaving Egypt in haste toward an unknown promised land, toward a covenant that had not yet been revealed. Like our ancestors, we became living poetry, believing in something that we could only know once we arrived, believing in something that could not be fully understood with words.”
– Alden Solovy, Haggadah Companion
Some journeys we choose. Other journeys choose us. Each year, we travel a journey we did not necessarily choose. Together, we are going to share these seven weeks by reflecting on our journey to this moment and going forward.
Week One: Waking Up
WEEK 1 – Waking Up
The journey begins when we wake up. Our core text for this week is from Exodus 2, verses 23-24:
“A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.”
The Israelites cry out in pain as they feel the bondage of their 400-year slavery. We do not know if the slavery suddenly got worse because of a new ruler, or if the weight of their chains finally became too unbearable. Their outcry is their waking up – their courage to hope for and fight for something different.
FOR EACH DAY: We have been in a kind of spiritual bondage. This is an opportunity for us to be waking up. Below are prompts for reflection, one for each day of counting (to follow the blessing for counting each day, should you wish to incorporate that practice):
Day 1: What are the places or situations in which you are stuck right now, that would urge you to wake up?
Day 2: What does “waking up” mean to you right now? To what have you woken up in the past year?
Day 3: What parts of your particular journey this year involves recognizing pain or suffering?
Day 4: Reflect upon where you have found moments of joy in this journey.
Day 5: What parts of your particular journey this year inspires you to keep walking?
Day 6: In your life, does waking up involve noticing discomfort or recognizing joy? How does this contribute to your journey?
Day 7, which is One Week: How can the restfulness of Shabbat give you what you might need for the journey ahead?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
Marge Piercy writes in “The Maggid” in The Art of Blessing The Day,
“The courage to walk out of the pain that is known into the pain that cannot be imagined, mapless, walking into the wilderness, going barefoot with a canteen into the desert…”
Week Two: Setting Out
WEEK 2 – Setting Out
Once we awaken and know we need to take action, we ready ourselves to set out on our journey. Journeys may be physical moves, or inner shifts and transitions to new ways of being or thinking. Our core text for this week is from Genesis 12:1 –
“God tells Avram, Go. Leave your country, the place where you were born, your parent’s house, and go to a land that I will show you.”
Setting out on any journey involves preparation to leave where you are, which is familiar, and step forward into something unknown. We orient ourselves in a new direction – kivun – which has the double meaning of both outer route and inner orientation and intention. We might imagine a better future, even if our vision of the ‘promised land’ is not yet fully formed. Hope and courage propel us forward, floating on the power of our imagination. We have one foot in the familiar and one foot in the unknown.
FOR EACH DAY: We are now setting out on the journey into ourselves. Below are prompts for reflection, one for each day of counting (following the blessing for counting, should you wish to incorporate that practice):
Day 8, which is one week and one day: In what ways have you left or do you feel far from ‘home’, physically or emotionally?
Day 9, which is one week and two days: What impact has leaving had on you? What impact has staying had on you, when you know it would have been better to leave/change?
Day 10, which is one week and three days: In the past, what was the most difficult part of a leaving or changing that you experienced? What were unexpected gifts?
Day 11, which is one week and four days: What is most fearful to you about the unknown? Most intriguing? Most inspiring? How can you muster all of that to propel yourself forward?
Day 12, which is one week and five days: How have you gathered your courage in the past when you knew you needed to make a move? How can you draw upon that wisdom for today?
Day 13, which is one week and six days: What tools, resources and people do you need to gather to venture out from where you are?
Day 14, which is two weeks: How can this Shabbat bring what you need to take your first small step?
Lawrence Kushner writes in ‘Go Forth’ from Honey From The Rock:
“Abraham, our father was simply told to leave.
Go forth from your land and from your kindred and even from your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.
This is the setting out. The leaving of everything behind.
Leaving the social milieu. The preconceptions. The definitions. The language.
The narrowed field of vision. The expectations.
No longer expecting relationships, memories, words, or letters to mean what they used to mean. To be, in a word: Open.
If you think you know what you will find, then you will find nothing.
If you expect nothing, then you will always be surprised.
And, able to bless the One who creates the world anew each morning.
So it is with setting out on the path of liberation, leaving everything.
He would even have to discover the way he would discover while he was on the way.
Of him it was said, A man who set out and did not know for which place he was destined.
(adapted from Tanhuma Lech L’cha 3)
Week Three: Entering the Wilderness
WEEK 3 – Entering the Wilderness
Inevitably, journeys encounter periods of wilderness – times of uncertainty, places of both barrenness and endless possibility. You might lose faith or even question your wisdom of setting out on the journey in the first place. You realize that what you thought you might rely upon for guidance is no longer useful. The Talmud teaches that when we make ourselves like the wilderness, open to all things, the Torah becomes our gift arising out of the wilderness.
Our core text this week is about this sense of wilderness and the unknown, from Exodus chapter 13:
“Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt.’ So, God led the people round about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds. Now the Israelites went up armed out of the land of Egypt.” (v. 17-19)
FOR EACH DAY: We are now entering the wilderness. Below are prompts for reflection, one for each day of counting (following the blessing for counting, should you wish to incorporate that practice):
Day 15, which is two weeks and one day: The Israelites went out of Egypt armed for battle. What do you imagine they needed? What might you need to deal with the challenges and difficulties of your journey?
Day 16, which is two weeks and two days: Consider a time that you were in the wilderness – it may be this past year, or you might choose to reflect on something from your past – whether as metaphor or a literal geographic place. Reflect upon its contours and emotions that were/are raised in you.
Day 17, which is two weeks and three days: What are detours that you have taken on that journey, whether by choice or by circumstance?
Day 18, which is two weeks and four days: What did you learn about yourself from that time in the wilderness? How do you see that learning playing out in your life now?
Day 19, which is two weeks and five days: What have been the surprising gifts of this journey?
Day 20, which is two weeks and six days: How might you face and move through your fears on this journey?
Day 21, which is three weeks: How might the restfulness and pause of this Shabbat bring you what you need to provide what you need for yourself on your journey?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
Sue Monk Kidd writes:
“Transformations come only as we go the long way around, only as we’re willing to walk a different, longer, more arduous, more inward, more prayerful route. When you wait, you’re deliberately choosing to take the long way, to go eight blocks instead of four, trusting that there is a transforming discovery lying pooled along the way.”
Week Four: Being in the Unknown
WEEK 4 – Being in the Unknown
So much of any journey depends upon our ability to tolerate being in the ‘I don’t know’ place. Sometimes we make choices that thrust us into periods of not-knowing: beginning or ending a relationship, beginning or ending a job, beginning or ending a new chapter of our lives. Other times the choice to inhabit the not-knowing is thrust upon us: an unexpected pregnancy, a diagnosis, an accident. The long journey of this pandemic has continued to be a time of the unknown, with small moments along the way of feeling settled, only to become unmoored once more.
This pattern is more like the story of life than we would like to admit to ourselves. It is hard to live with uncertainty. If our identity is tied up in our expertise, it can be especially onerous to admit how much we don’t know or control. When our ‘knowing’ itself becomes the object, we might stop paying attention or listening because we think we know, and we miss what might actually unfold.
There is power in learning to tolerate ‘not knowing.’ When we can admit that we don’t understand, that we aren’t sure when things will change (‘get better’), we can actually settle into being present with what is.
Our core text this week is about the transformative nature of the wilderness and the unknown, from Talmud Nedarim 55a:8-9:
“Why is it written, ‘and from wilderness a gift?’ (Numbers 21:18) … When a person makes oneself like wilderness, which is free to all, Torah is given as a gift, as it says, ‘from wilderness a gift.’ Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk continues, saying, ‘Only when you are “like a wilderness” are you ready to have God’s presence rest upon you and merit the light of Torah. ‘Like a wilderness’ means that you have not yet been touched by human hands, that you have never been cultivated or planted, that you must rely on your own strength, as in the teaching, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ (Mishnah Avot 1:14).”
FOR EACH DAY: We are working on being in the unknown. Below are prompts for reflection, one for each day of counting (following the blessing for counting, should you wish to incorporate that practice):
Day 22, which is three weeks and one day: Do you see the unknown as something to be feared, challenged, dealt with, managed or overcome? Or is it something to be navigated, explored, embraced, cultivated, or expressed?
Day 23, which is three weeks and two days: In the past year, what has been the most difficult for you in terms of knowing/not knowing? Why do you think that is?
Day 24, which is three weeks and three days: What have you discovered in the unknown, immersed in the wilderness of this (or another, earlier) journey?
Day 25, which is three weeks and four days: What might help ease you into times and experiences of ‘not knowing’? What illusions do you need to let go of?
Day 26, which is three weeks and five days: How do you ‘pack’ for the unknown? What do you bring to a place you do not recognize in order to feel settled?
Day 27, which is three weeks and six days: What are the certainties that you can hold onto, to sustain you?
Day 28, which is four weeks: Find a moment this Shabbat to create some space around your experience, to embrace the unknown in your life, with all of its discoveries.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
Rabbi Ellen Bernstein writes:
“”Many of our ancestors took to the wilderness. Abraham, Jacob, and Moses were all called to forsake their settled lives, their homes, and their communities to endure a period of uncertainty and unfamiliarity in the desert. It was only in the unknown that true self-knowledge could be obtained. There they would meet God, discover their sense of purpose, and become Jews.”
Brene Brown writes in Braving the Wilderness (2017):
“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”
Week Five: Finding Our Way
WEEK 5 – Finding Our Way
This week is about meeting the obstacles that are part of any journey. The obstacles might be physical or emotional or spiritual. As a journey continues, you may lose your way at some point or even forget why you set out.
Inevitably, something happens for which you could not have planned. It is normal and natural to consider giving up at points along the way. You may even think that it would have been so much easier if you stayed where you were. Falling back asleep or forgetting your intention may seem like the best option. And perhaps, you may be getting a glimmer of a way forward, an opening on the path.
Our core text this week is a Hasidic parable, told by Rabbi Hayyim of Zans [19th cent.]:
A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a man approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. ‘Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,’ he thought to himself. When they neared one another, he asked the man, ‘Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.’
Said the other to him, ‘Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way out together.’
Our master added: ‘So it is with us. One thing I can tell you: the way we have been following this far we ought follow no further, for that leads one astray. But now let us look for a new way.’
FOR EACH DAY: We are working on Finding Our Way. Below are prompts for reflection, one for each day of counting (following the blessing for counting, should you wish to incorporate that practice):
Day 29, which is four weeks and one day: What is your habitual response to being lost? Do you stop for directions or help?
Day 30, which is four weeks and two days: Who might you look to in your life to be companions as you are finding your way?
Day 31, which is four weeks and three days: What advice would you give a friend who was doubting the rightness of the path on which they had set out?
Day 32, which is four weeks and four days: Do you find yourself paying more attention to the obstacles and challenges as you find your way forward, or are you more inclined to look for the glimmer of an opening? How can you choose what you notice with greater intention?
Day 33, which is four weeks and five days [Lag B’Omer]: Rabbinic tradition presents as the reason for the plague that temporarily ceases on Lag B’Omer is that Rabbi Akivah’s students did have enough regard for one another. How are the relationships that you have with others a factor in how you find your way?
Day 34, which is four weeks and six days: Consider the Rumi poem below. How might you stay awake, as the poet Rumi suggests?
Day 35, which is five weeks: This Shabbat, consider the ways that you might have lost your way and could re-orient yourself on your journey.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
– RUMI (13th Century Persia)
Week Six: Becoming the Vision
WEEK 6 – Becoming the Vision
Now we are approaching the precipice of a new way of being in the world. We have an opportunity to make a choice, as we will see in the core text. Are we going to continue on toward our vision of who we could be? Or will self-doubt and fear stop us in our tracks?
Our core text this week comes from the Torah portion Sh’lakh l’cha in the book of Numbers (this book is named B’midbar in Hebrew, meaning ‘In The Wilderness’), Moses sends a group of scouts to survey the Promised Land ahead, to see what it was like, to get a taste of what was awaiting them. He selected leaders from each tribe. The group of twelve went into the land, observed the people, the produce, the place and returned to Moses and the rest of the camp to report back. Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, reported that the land was exceedingly good and that, with God’s help, they would be able to enter the land. The other ten scouts saw that the land was indeed flowing with milk and honey but as impossible to conquer.
“We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we must have looked the same to them.” The community broke into loud cries and wept. (Numbers 13:32-33)
This episode was the turning point for our Israelite ancestors. Joshua and Caleb pleaded with the Israelite community not to be afraid, and only they will make it into the Promised Land. All the others will die in the wilderness. For the generation born in slavery, oppression had been internalized too deeply; they could not break through to see themselves through God’s eyes or as the people they were created to become. Judaism teaches that humility is not about berating oneself or being submissive, but rather occupying the right amount of ‘spiritual space’ for a given situation.
FOR EACH DAY: We are working on Becoming The Vision. Below are prompts for reflection, one for each day of counting (following the blessing for counting, should you wish to incorporate that practice):
Day 36, which is five weeks and one day: When on your journey have you felt inadequate, seeing yourself as a grasshopper, as smaller or less than you really are? How might you see yourself through a different lens?
Day 37, which is five weeks and two days: What are the stories you tell yourself about your potential? How many of them echo voices you heard growing up?
Day 38, which is five weeks and three days: Reflect upon a time when despite part of you feeling “small”, you carried on with your journey?
Day 39, which is five weeks and four days: What is your vision of yourself about who you want to become and embody on this journey?
Day 40, which is five weeks and five days: What narratives of yourself, or resentments or old wounds do you need to jettison in order to grow toward your vision?
Day 41, which is five weeks and six days: What would you most like to accomplish? What legacy would you like to leave behind?
Day 42, which is six weeks: This Shabbat, consider how you might describe your own “promised land” – what would it be like? Who would be there?
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
Rabbi Sheryl Lewart (z’l) wrote a blessing for moments when we need courage:
May you leave behind
all the stories that echo in your mind
and go forward to realize the unique
of your own precious life.
May you feel strong and courageous
as you travel to fulfill
the purpose of your creation.
May you awaken to your potential,
and honor the core truth of your soul
even if it feels inconvenient or
May you be a source of courage
to all you meet on life’s journey.
May you face your fears
And know you have what it takes
to vanquish them.
Week Seven: Arriving
WEEK 7 – Arriving
When the journey we are on is physical (such as moving to a new place or changing jobs), it is possible to claim “I have arrived.” You get to your destination, unpack your stuff,and start to settle in. A new journey begins.
In the case of journeys that are spiritual and emotional, “arrival” may be much more difficult to define. For example, if you want to embody a new way of thinking or being, you may only get a temporary sense of “arrival” when faced with a circumstance in which you think and respond differently. Or, you may all of a sudden discover that you now “know” something in your bones, that you may have doubted before.
In this week’s core text, the Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (18th C. Poland) writes:
“Every person has his or her own piece of Torah. The complete Torah was given to the Jewish people as a whole. However, each person has a personal teaching, his or her own Torah, inside them. This is hidden within the soul. There is a piece of Torah that can be learned from every person.”
A journey is about discovering your own personal teaching. As you move through your life, hidden aspects of your uniqueness are revealed. The text also reminds us that we can learn from each and every person we encounter along the way.
FOR EACH DAY: We are working on Arriving, the last part of this particular journey. Below are prompts for reflection, one for each day of counting (following the blessing for counting, should you wish to incorporate that practice):
Day 43, which is six weeks and one day: Looking back over this journey, what have you learned about yourself?
Day 44, which is six weeks and two days: Take note of your experience in this moment as reflecting upon these past weeks of practice. What are you feeling?
Day 45, which is six weeks and three days: What is your own personal teaching? What have you discovered about yourself?
Day 46, which is six weeks and four days: An embedded understanding in the teaching of the S’fat Emet is that your ‘Torah’ is part of the Jewish people. How might your connection to or understanding of your place among the Jewish people changed over the time of your journey?
Day 47, which is six weeks and five days: On this journey, reflect upon one thing that you learned from someone else and how that either impeded or facilitated your journey.
Day 48, which is six weeks and six days: In the poem below, Rilke posits that our journey may be smoother when we learn to “live the questions” our life presents us. How do you remain settled with the unanswered questions?
Day 49, which is seven weeks: This Shabbat, consider your entire journey. See if you can find refuge in what you have learned, love in those around you, and joy in the upcoming gathering of the Jewish people (Sunday morning at NVHC!) on Shavuot as we once again open our hearts and minds to the hidden wisdom and guidance of Torah.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION:
Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes in Letters To A Young Poet:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved
in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves,
like locked rooms and
like books that are now written
in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers,
which cannot be given you because
you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything.
Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually,
without noticing it, live along some
distant day into the answer.
Joseph’s Bones, by Mark L. Green
If you are ready to escape at last
The narrow place you got yourself enslaved in,
Before you leave you must find Joseph’s bones–
A legacy of choices that you made
Which brought you here.
To seek them, you’ll go down beside the Nile
And send your soul to dive into the silt
To pry them, bone by bone,
Out from the sludge that long ago
These bones are with you, now,
Upon your journey,
At every moment whispering in your ear
Of leeks and garlic.
Their silence will not come
Until you reach the place of freedom,
Where you’ll bury them with honor in the earth.
Instead of bones
Your burden now will be the choices of the living.
Therefore choose life, if only for a time,
For narrow places will be close at hand
And you will sell the things you love
Joseph and Pharaoh,
These are part of life,
An old, old story which is told to you
So that one day you will no longer hear
The clattering of bones behind your ear.