A Water from the Well blog post, Parashat Emor
Written by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Four weeks ago, we celebrated the holiday of Pesach, our Festival of Freedom. Around our tables we enacted the historic journey of the Israelites out of slavery. Perhaps we liberated ourselves a little bit more from the ways we may enslave ourselves through unconscious habitual devotion to repetitive patterns in our lives.
To be free is to have a choice. Simply knowing that one does in fact have a choice in every situation is a mark of freedom. As we become increasingly awake and aware of these choices, we may select our best course of action. Then we become truly free.
In the Passover story, the Israelites left the land of enslavement and began a journey into the wilderness toward an unknown destination. Tradition teaches us this journey lasted for forty-nine days and culminated in the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai.
In Emor, this week’s Torah portion, all the festivals of the Jewish calendar are listed including the commandment to count the forty-nine days from Pesach to Shavuot, culminating in a festival for the new spring wheat harvest. The count begins on the second day of Passover, when during Temple times, an omer of barley was offered as a sacrifice. The omer was a specific measurement, an amount of barley. Shavuot means “weeks,” referring to the completion of seven weeks of counting that precedes this harvest festival.
Like all Jewish practices related to the calendar cycle, there is both an agricultural basis to the traditions and a spiritual significance tied to the narrative of the Jewish people. For the festival of Shavuot, the yearly counting of forty-nine days between the first barley harvest at Passover time to the first wheat harvest at Shavuot became associated with the forty-nine-day journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Mt. Sinai.
In both cases, we discover the idea of renewal through an unfolding process over time. On a physical level, we observe the springtime cycle of nature’s rising energy as first barley and then wheat crops come to fruition. Spiritually, we observe the gradual awakening of the people from slave mentality to embracing the freedom of choice. At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites do make a choice as they declare na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will listen.
Our rabbis teach that we all possess this possibility for renewal and refinement. We are always in process, never complete, always capable of change and growth. The process of counting the omer during these forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot becomes an annual opportunity for self-reflection and the recognition of new choices. And so, every spring, after the elaborate ritual of the Passover Seder, we embark upon the forty-nine-day journey through the wilderness of our lives.
Jewish mystical tradition teaches that the seven weeks of the omer-counting period are linked to seven Divine qualities. Our task is to explore how we might better express these qualities. In weeks one and two we focus on the ways we give and withhold love and how we might create healthy boundaries with compassion. In later weeks we explore our capacity for endurance and humility in relationships. Finally, we focus on the ways we negotiate intimacy and bonding with others, discovering in the last week our own sense of personal sovereignty and dignity. This is the Torah of relationships and of awareness. It is rooted in our capacity for honest self-examination and the essential freedom to choose.
This current week of the omer count is dedicated to the exploration of the many dimensions of humility. We seek to gain a deeper awareness of when and how to utilize this quality for the highest good. We are to consider the following questions: Are there times when I need to be quiet, to exercise restraint and humility, rather than burst forth with my opinion or judgments? And we explore the converse as well: When might I need to overcome my sense of humility, in order to speak up for justice or combat wickedness?
The omer count from Passover to Shavuot has often been described as a ladder, counting up, not down, to the moment in which revelation becomes a possibility. Through the practice of mindful self-awareness, we become more capable of choosing our actions and reactions, of first recognizing and then exercising our freedom of choice. Step by step, rung by rung, we can develop mastery over ourselves. It is then that we become receptive to revelation.
What do I mean by “revelation”? It is the ability to hear the whisper of truth that resides both within and without, the whisper that we so often disregard or push away. Developing the ability to pause mindfully and make a conscious choice in every situation allows a greater truth to be revealed.
May we each, in our own way, whether through the tools of the omer count, or meditation, or mindful living, recognize that we always have the freedom to notice and then to choose how we will respond to any situation, any event. As we do so, we become more free. We pursue this process of spiritual refinement so that the Divine light that resides within each of us may shine more readily and brilliantly in our world.