It was a beautiful spring night almost 30 years ago when I first experienced the counting of the Omer. As our seder on the second night of Passover came to a close, our host invited everyone out onto his redwood deck. There, under the full moon, he offered thanks, blessed the moment and said, "Today is the first day of the Omer."
"What is the Omer?" I asked.
"The Omer," he replied, "is a secret treasure of our tradition. It guides us on a journey of the spirit, helping us cultivate awareness, discernment and gratitude. It reminds us that everything passes and everything we do matters.
"Start counting," he said, "and you will begin to understand."
Counting the Omer is not as much of a secret as it once was. In recent years, many Jews have embraced this 49-day mindfulness practice, which starts this year on the evening of March 30 and ends the night of May 17, the day before Shavuot. The invitation to share in this treasure is there for both beginners and those who have taken on this practice in the past.
Counting the Omer began as an agricultural ritual. Our ancestors would pray for an abundant spring harvest by waving a sheaf, an Omer, of barley toward the night sky. Over time, this agricultural rite was replaced by liturgy, and the counting became the way to mark the Israelites' journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai.
For the Jewish mystics of the 16th and 17th centuries, counting the Omer became a time of spiritual exploration and cleansing — a way to prepare the soul to receive Divine guidance that comes on Shavuot.
During the counting of the Omer, it is the practice to stand every night and, in the midst of opening and closing prayers, count each day.
This counting helps us pay attention to the movement of our lives — to notice the subtle shifts, the big changes, all the yearnings, strivings, disappointments, hopes and fears. It seeks to cleanse and renew our nefesh, ruach and neshamah (layers of body, mind and soul), so we can respond to the circumstances of our lives with compassion and wisdom.
Each of the seven weeks of the Omer contains a specific spiritual quality based on seven of the 10 sefirot, the Divine emanations through which, the mystics believed, God reveals Godself in the world:
· Week One: Chesed — Love, Compassion
· Week Two: Gevurah — Judgment, Strength
· Week Three: Tiferet — Beauty, Harmony
· Week Four: Netzach — Eternity, Endurance
· Week Five: Hod — Gratitude, Presence
· Week Six: Yesod — Foundation, Connection
· Week Seven: Malchut/Shechina — Sovereignty, Indwelling Presence
On each of the 49 days, two of the qualities intersect with each other so that every day is unique. As we count each day, the invitation is to reflect on the combination of spiritual qualities. Week by week, day by day, let these qualities pose questions, focus our attention and challenge our perceptions.
The Israelites' journey took place in the vastness of the desert. It was there that they encountered their deepest fears and most expansive visions. It was there that they heard the Divine speak, instructing them how to live in relationship to themselves and all creation with awe, reverence and gratitude.
The Hebrew word for "desert wilderness" — midbar — is the same word for "speak,"midaber.
The mystics teach that when we leave our routines, habits and expectations to traverse the wilderness of mind and spirit, we open ourselves to receive Divine guidance.
As my host said many years ago, start counting, and you will begin to understand. May the journey be for blessing.
Rabbi Yael Levy is director of spiritual development at Congregation Mishkan Shalom. For an Omer guide, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.