Shabbat Shemini: You Can Rise Up

The fifty days between the two harvest festivals of Pesakh and Shavuot are traditionally counted. The daily count is called Sefirat haOmer, the “counting of the [barley] measure,” because in the unceasing toil of ancient agricultural subsistence, every day of the harvest was a time to count in gratitude and in hope for continuing harvest.

The counting of the omer was interpreted for new relevance during the 2000 year Exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel, and very often from the ability to farm. The ancient Rabbis recognized in this 50 day period a chance to consider the eternal truth that one does not cease to be a slave overnight. One does not alter a perspective quickly, nor take easily to a layer of change over years of habit. In truth, there are those who prefer never to countenance change at all, as well as those who embrace it. Most of us are somewhere in the broad and confusing middle, wandering in a wilderness of some comforting habit, and some jarring change.

These 50 days offer us a yearly opportunity to contemplate this ancient invitation: are you moving forward, or are you circling back around? No judgement, just an effort at clarity: where are you on your path? Are you happy in it? What choices have you made, and what narrow places constrain you?

In a play on the words sefirat haOmer, the mystics of our tradition offer us the sefirot haOmer, a way of counting our days and considering their impact on us and the world through looking at aspects of our selfhood.

For one whole week we consider how our own sense of compassion intersects with our attribute of judgement, of mercy, of consequences, of wisdom, of our own sense of what grounds us, and more. The next week, we go through the same characteristics of our existence, but from a different angle. And so on, for seven weeks of considering our response to the Eternal question

Ayeka? Where are you?

as HaShem asked the first humans as they hid themselves (to no avail) in Eden.

Eternity asks us ayeka? every day. Every day we are too busy and too distracted to hear. But for 50 days, we are urged by our tradition to take the time to listen.

The first weeks of our contemplation find us at the level of our physicality. This is truly human; we begin as small organisms that do nothing but exist physically. As we mature, we develop into emotional, intellectual, and spiritual beings.

This is where our parashat hashavua finds us, grappling with the nature of our physical existence. It offers a profound lesson in the first day on the job of two priests in the new Mishkan, the sacred space created to approach the presence of HaShem. 

But it does not go well.

Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered HaShem a fire offering which had not been instructed. Fire came forth from HaShem and consumed them, and they died. (Leviticus 10.1-2)

Judaism has never derogated physicality; Jewish teachings recognize that the body must be cared for before one can learn. But to remain in the grip of focus upon the physical will destroy us. The teaching for us in the sefirot haOmer is perhaps this:

if you don’t take care of your physical body you are not able to rise above the level of the physical. The invitation to the 50 days of contemplation of all one’s harvest are not simply or only physical, though, and if you are only concerned with your body, you are stuck in a circling. 

For anyone who is physically endangered by illness or dysmorphia, it is imperative, in the light of this teaching, to act with clarity and fullness to address that danger. Until you are physically safe, you cannot rise to the next level. And to grow into your fullness, you need to rise.

The same is true of the emotional level of our lives, which is considered next. Then the intellectual – each with its own traps, lest we believe that any one of our characteristics is enough to define us. We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman sang of himself. We reflect Eternity in all its aspects, each of us and every single one of us. 

On this Shabbat we have counted the days from Pesakh to Yom HaShoah, and soon we will commemorate Yom HaAtzma’ut. The experience of releasing one’s energy from constraints similarly may presage destruction as well as hope rising from that destruction. The Jewish people will continue to count past these monumental dates for our people. Join us, as we attempt to rise all the way through an inner as well as communal journey that may, if we are willing, lead us all the way to meaningful personal existence within meaningful supportive community – rising to the moment of Sinai, where we can finally see.

Shabbat Shemini: Teach Us To Count Our Days

למנות ימינו כן הודע ונביא לבב חכמה

Limnot yameynu keyn hoda’ v’navi levav hokhmah

“Teach us to count our days that we might acquire a heart of wisdom.”

Psalm 90.12

“What day is it?” This isolation we are practicing for the sake of public health, and the disruption of the routines that define the days for us, makes it hard to keep track of time. All the more reason to be grateful, I find, for the ancient Jewish practices that keep insisting on their relevance no matter what happens in our so-called secular (aka not Jewish) lives.

A curious coincidence: the name of our parashah this week is Shemini, which means “eighth.” And today is the eighth day of Sefirat ha’Omer, the Counting of the Omer. ”Who knows eight?” As the song at the end of the Seder proclaims, shmonah yemei milah, the eighth day is Brit milah, the Jewish covenant of circumcision which was the very first identity marker of which we know that was adopted by the Jewish people for all those with male bodies (regardless of expressions of gender or sexuality – you can find much more on that in the Talmud.) 

On the surface – p’shat – level, our parashat hashavuah, the parashah for this week in the Torah, describes the beginning of the sacrificial practices associated with the Mishkan, the tent set up on the middle of the Israelite camp in order to create a sense of connection between us and HaShem. But we are taught that there are four levels of interpretation for every verse, every word, every letter in the Torah. Digging deeper into levels of drash (“investigation”), remez (“hint”) and sode (“secret”) opens up for us a fascinating door into the profound meaning of counting our days.

We begin with the name of the parashah, shemini, “eighth.” The context of this number is provided at the end of last week’s parashah, with the words “Your ordination will require seven days.” (Lev. 8.33). The words are directed to the first kohanim, priests, who will serve in the Mishkan and were undergoing a week of training to prepare.

The eighth day in Jewish tradition symbolizes that which comes after the perfection of Creation. In seven days HaShem created the world, we are told in Bereshit, and on the eighth day the story of human action within that creation began. So also in this parashah, in which the Mishkan, which is a microcosm of Creation, becomes active on the eighth day, through human agency, in partnership with HaShem.

The Zohar, the primary source of much Jewish mystical speculation and insight, offers a closer, more literal reading of Leviticus 8.33.

כי שבעת ימים ימלא את ידכם

Shivat yamim y’maley et yedkhem 

Seven days shall fill your hands 

Drawing upon the unusual syntax, the Zohar suggests that “We have learned: they are six, all included in this (seventh) one, which is totality of them all.” The Seven mentioned here is Binah, “understanding,” the mother sefirah out of which the world of emotion, of physicality, in short of the world we know, was born.

The sefirot that compose our world are the six mentioned by the Zohar plus the final one that represents the world as we know it. Noting the similarity between the word sefirah, “counting” and the word sefirah, “characteristic”,  opens the mystical door to seeing these as the sefirot that we are to count during the Counting of the Omer period. 

There are many places on the web where you can find a daily guide for counting the Omer. It lists the sefirot that compose our world, as characteristics that also compose us, in the order of the weekly counting. In short, it offers you a profound way to meditate upon an intensely personal consideration of who you are, and how you are, both in your inner existence and in the world.* It can help you keep track of what day it is. More, it may fill your hands with a sense not only of each day that passes, but of the Binah, the wisdom, that gathers them, and us, all up.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

*there is much, more more to be said about this, and I have said it in my Because All Is One

Shabbat Emor: With All Your Heart

Nobody sees a flower really; 

it is so small. 

We haven’t time, 

and to see takes time – 

like to have a friend takes time.

  – Georgia O’Keefe

Parashat Emor begins with a series of commands regarding the priests and their behavior: lo y’tama’ b’amav, they shall “not become defiled among their people”. (Lev. 21.1) Priests, who are set up as an elite among the people, must live up to the expectations of the position. This is a very ancient idea and still so relevant: when people occupy positions of high authority, we expect them to behave accordingly, and by that we mean ethically – and we are especially disappointed in them when they do not.

There’s an ethical dilemma, though, in that expectation: we who are not in that high position might come to see our own behavior as less significant. We might even say that it’s no big deal if we break a law, compared to if the priest/king/president/mayor does. 

Jewish tradition teaches differently. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, the Rabbis sought ways to keep our religious (which includes ethical) traditions relevant even without the institutions they had been based upon and grew from. Jewish teaching emphasizes that each of us can defile not only ourselves, but our people, when we act unethically. It takes the heart right out of the community and slowly but surely, that community declines into cynicism. 

No – rather than give up the institutions that support our acts and teachings, they brilliantly interpreted them:

No more sacrifices? the Rabbis taught that G*d welcomed the “service of the heart”, and that our obedience to the ethical teachings of our tradition would be just as acceptable an offering – as a gift of thanksgiving for the gift of life, or as an offering of atonement.

No more Temple altar? our tables in our homes shall become our altar, they said, and each of our homes a mikdash me’at, a “small sanctuary”. Our homes are to echo and reinforce our ethics.

No more priests? the Rabbis pointed out, G*d declares in the Torah that “you shall all be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people.” (Ex.19.6) Without a central Jewish institution, it was – and is – up to each of us to maintain the ethical standards that were to be upheld by the priests.

It is clear that we are to see the ethical commands of Judaism as incumbent upon us all equally. And these mitzvot are that which will keep us from becoming “defiled among the people”. But how to keep track of all the specifics in the way we are meant to behave, not only judging others but ourselves, in a life so full of distraction? How to, as the familiar mitzvah puts it, follow the path “with all your heart”?

The text of parashat Emor itself offers us a way to do just that: “you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete” (Lev. 23.15) Jewish tradition has developed this into an ethic of counting our days – all our days, not just these 49 between Pesakh and Shavuot. But these 7 weeks have become for us a time to deepen whatever practice we have for noticing our days, for not letting them slip by completely unexamined. When we take time each day to consider our day, we see them, and the days themselves become fuller for us, richer – and we are more able to be conscious ethical actors in our lives, rather than helplessly pulled from place to place, commitment to commitment. 

Then we are more able to act with all the heart. And that is what makes each day, and each week, “complete” in the sense of the Torah’s phrase.

shabbat Emor: the price of disrespect

Parashat Emor includes, coincidentally, the mitzvah (command) of Sefirat haOmer, the counting of the omer (a sheaf of barley). The original idea is probably agricultural: during the ongoing barley harvest, bringing a sheaf from each day’s harvest for a formal count may have been some kind of ritual effort to keep the harvest abundant. It is true that we sometimes delight in counting out or otherwise measuring that which we are excited about, or care deeply about.

Today, erev Shabbat, is the 34th day of the Omer; yesterday was the 33rd, which is a minor holy day known by a name derived from the count: Lag BaOmer literally means “33 of the omer”. (Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and so every Hebrew number can also be pronounced. Thus the names of the holy days Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, and Tu b’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat.)

  וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה

Count for yourself from the day after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the omer to wave; seven complete weeks

  עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַיהוָה

until the morrow after the seventh week, count off fifty days; and then present a new meal offering unto HaShem. (Lev 23.15-16)

Lag baOmer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, marks the end of the period of semi-mourning which characterizes the first 32 days of the counting period. Why should the first 32 days after the Pesakh Seder be a somber time, when by traditional minhag weddings are not celebrated, beards are not cut, and parties and dancing are considered inappropriate?

The traditional explanation is that during this time period, long ago in Israel, 24,000 students of the celebrated Rabbi Akiba died of plague. The Talmud does not stop with the story, though – it goes on to give a reason:

“Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. It is taught that they all died between Passover and Shavuot, and that they all suffered bitter deaths” (TalmudYevamot 62b). 

It may seem outrageous that so many would die as a result of being disrespectful, but consider the ancient teaching that “because of baseless hatred, the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our land”. (Talmud Yoma 9a) Much of what happens to us, insists our Jewish sources of learning, has to do with our morality. Certainly the prophets would agree. After all, it’s not as if we are asserting that if we behave badly, a giant hand will appear from heaven and punish us in some way; the prophets insist that, rather like losing one’s kingdom for the want of a horseshoe nail, the integrity of our world depends upon apparently small, small things. After all, we are taught that the entire world does rely upon three things: study, internalization of that which is learned, and acting with kindness at all times – TorahAvodah, and Gemilut Hasadim.

Whatever the source of sadness that echoes through the Jewish calendar at this time of year, it is real. The traditional minhagim restricting joy during these 33 days (it lets up after Lag BaOmer) are a haunting reminder of a grief that is no longer remembered directly. Like a yahrzeit, it comes yearly to remind us that we have mourned, as a people, the consequences of immoral behavior toward each other. 

On this Shabbat, consider the destructive consequences of your smallest acts of disrespect toward others – your colleagues, friends, children, parents, strangers – and seek to replace them with kindness. May we all become more mindful of the power we wield.