A Season of Counting

We are in the season of counting. Parashat Emor, which we will read in the coming week, specifies the ritual for the omer. The first sheaf of the harvest, the first omer, which is lifted up by the priest, accompanied by an olah, a burnt offering, of a perfect yearling lamb. And then we count off seven weeks. On the fiftieth day the sheaves become loaves, the offerings multiply. Amid the abundance we are reminded to be generous, leaving the edges of the field and all missed and dropped produce for the poor and the stranger.

Deuteronomy (chapter 16) tells us more: “You will keep the festival of Shavuot/Weeks…. You will rejoice, along with your families and servants, the Levite and the stranger, the orphan and the widow.” The bounty is to be shared with those near and those in need.

By the Talmudic period, Shavuot celebrated the gift of Torah, rather than the summer harvest. The fifty-day journey from redemption to revelation. By the beginning of May, we will be almost halfway to Sinai. But this year we are also counting other, larger, numbers.

By the first day of the omer, 2756 people in Wisconsin had contracted COVID-19, 402,923 in the U.S. By press time over 2 million had been infected worldwide with 160,000 dead. These huge numbers echo the magnitude of the Exodus and approach that of the Sho’ah.

We read Torah each year with new eyes and a new heart. This year, with the counting of illness and death as background, the counting of the omer can feel trivial by comparison. The Kabbalists provide a practice to help guide us on this year’s difficult journey, using the weeks of the omer to explore the sephirot, the divine qualities, in the Tree of Life. The ten sephirot provide a broad perspective of ways of being in the world. All ten of the sephirot can be mapped on the human form, but tradition suggests we can only access the lower seven.

The first week of the omer, the week of Pesach is characterized by chesed, unbounded love, perfect for this festival characterized textually by Song of Songs. We begin by feeling the love of the one who redeems us from slavery and opening our doors (metaphorically this year) to all who desire. But this love quickly transitions to judgment and boundaries, the week of gevurah, as our doors shut, our open hands retract, and we retreat within more secure borders.

Perhaps you have been feeling this push/pull of chesed and gevurah over these weeks. We yearn to reach out and connect with our loved ones as we retreat in fear, and by public decree, into our own spaces. We seek a way to help those in need and others putting themselves in harm’s way for the public good and watch others outside, or online, and judge their distancing, their face coverings.

The resolution comes from tiferet – compassion, mercy, balance. We can temper our anger, knowing we cannot intuit the actions or motives of another. We can quench our desire, accepting there is wisdom within the barriers. But where do we go from here?

These first weeks of May correspond netzach and hod, flowing from tiferet and mapped on our two thighs, guiding our journey. Netzach, or victory, may be interpreted as perseverance, an enduring strength bringing us through extended struggle. Its reflection of hod, with strong relationship to hoda’ah, gratitude, allows us to be appreciative and accepting of what is in the moment. Together, these contrasting energies move us forward, step by step.

An ancient tale of Solomon provides us with the saying, gam zeh ya’avor/this too shall pass. While this may seem a crass or flip response to a pandemic, it is the only real truth we have. Every step of the journey is new. At any moment we may need to access our strength or submit to a reality beyond our control. Our hearts will break for the losses that are endured and reach out to those in need. Our anger will stir in the wake of irresponsibility. We will feel hopeless and retreat. We will steel our strength and forge ahead.

And at the end of these seven weeks we will rejoice in the gift of Torah, sharing our bounty with those near and in need, casting off the excess that we can leave behind, grateful that our tradition provides guidance for the journey.