Rabbi Yael Levy says that counting the Omer is a hidden treasure of our Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Yael Levy was alone in the southwest part of the country when she first felt a connection to the Omer.
After camping and hiking by herself during her sabbatical in 2003, she realized what time of year it was and began counting.
“I was out there for a month by myself backpacking and camping,” she recalled. “All I was doing was being out in the wilderness, and it was a time and opportunity to be with and listen to the call of the Omer.”
While she had counted the Omer before — the ritual of counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot — this was the first time she truly felt a spiritual connection to it. At the time, she was only hiking and counting the Omer and being under the stars, which was probably more visible in, say, New Mexico than in Philadelphia.
After that, she began teaching about the Omer in her rabbinate at Mishkan Shalom, where she’s been for 21 years.
“I began sharing some of my personal writings and reflections, which I really hadn’t done before that,” she said. “It was after that experience that I started bringing my writings to the rabbinate.
“When we created A Way In Jewish Mindfulness organization, the folks who helped me create that really encouraged me to more formalize my teachings and they really encouraged me to write the book.”
The book in question is Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer, which has fewer than 100 pages outlining each week and each day according to its prayer and attitude. Week one, for instance, which we are now six days into, focuses on chesed, or loving kindness.
A Way In was started in 2007 to “bring a mindfulness perspective to Jewish tradition.” Levy does weekly meditation sits and mindfulness practices to teach others.
“In every age, we look at Judaism a little bit differently,” Levy said, “and I think bringing a mindfulness perspective, for me, is it’s ‘How is the tradition calling us to be present? How is the tradition guiding us in meeting the mysterious?’”
For Levy, counting the Omer and teaching it is unique because it’s not present so much in “mainstream Jewish life.”
“One of my favorite things about it is it’s such a fantastic practice and that people don’t know about it,” she said. “There’s lots of great paths out there and, since I’m a rabbi, I teach the Jewish path and I love that I get to turn people onto something they don’t know about. It’s a treasure of our tradition, and it’s a bit of a hidden treasure and people get excited.”
A Way In sends nightly email newsletters with a reminder to count that day.
“It’s easy to forget to count because you count at night. That’s why we send out the emails in the evening,” Levy explained. “It’s 49 days. It’s a long time to maintain the practice. That’s why we try to create community around it because it’s hard to do on your own.”
In addition to the emails, there is a Facebook page that allows people to communicate with one another throughout the process. Levy also sends out additional teachings each week.
For her, now that she has been counting for quite some time, Levy noticed that she responds differently each year. While she doesn’t have a favorite prayer or week, she continues to go in each year with an open mind, and encourages others to do the same.
“I notice I have different responses to different weeks and different days,” she reflected. “Other weeks feel more aligned with my own self and feel less challenging. I’m always curious and interested to see how it all touched me each year.”
Journey Through the Wilderness is a way of helping others understand their own blessings and challenges.
Each day has a prayer and outlines a practice for the day. For instance, day six focuses on being rooted within love. The practice for the day is to “take time to remember and honor the gifts and blessings you received from loved ones who have passed out of this world. Say their names aloud and give thanks for their lives.”
Other practices throughout the weeks include taking special notice of color and light and patterns or sitting for 10 minutes and paying attention to your breathing.
Some weeks are more challenging than others, Levy noted.
The point, however, is to take note of what is in your life.
“It helps us meet life well and meet life with open hearts and helps us feel that we live in reverent relationships with all beings so our actions and words are geared toward understanding and peace,” Levy said. “I do feel that spiritual practice is on our path to tikkun olam. We align ourselves to bring goodness to the world and to each other as well as to deal with our own blessings and challenges, and I hope it brings healing and peace.”
Rabbi Robert Alpert at Har Zion Temple echoed the idea that counting the Omer allows people to take the time to recognize each day.
“It helps them value time, their lives, sense of anticipation for things,” he said. “Like when a kid looks forward to a birthday or somebody’s anniversary, we look forward to Shavuot and the time of the giving of the Torah, which completes the process of redemption.”
He recalled in the Torah that there is only one ceremony for the Omer, but the counting is rooted in ancient tradition.
Congregants count the Omer each night during evening services, Alpert said. However, he does not say “this is the sixth night of the Omer,” but rather “yesterday was the fifth day” and each person is responsible for doing his or her own math.
“You’re not allowed to say it before you’ve said the blessing or else it’s kind of nullified,” he said.
Counting the Omer links together Passover and Shavuot, he said, which are part of the same festival, although separated by 49 days.
“We count the Omer every night from the second night of Passover until Shavuot as a way of counting up — or looking forward to — or counting down to Shavuot,” he said. “The mitzvah is to count every single night after sunset during the evening service.”
While he doesn’t have a particular favorite day, he has connections to some numbers because of lessons he learned in school or from certain teachers that have stuck with him.
Counting each night is symbolic because it means “valuing every single day as being special.”
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