Today is thirty-four days, which is four weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5781. יסוד שבהוד, Yesod ShebeHod, Foundation of Gratitude.
It is imperative to build a bridge between how I am feeling and the wellspring of gratitude. Regardless of how stressful the day is, or how overwhelming the year is: I should root my thoughts, emotions, and speech in gratitude.
Some days, the breadth of the pandemic overwhelms me. The never-ending drum beat of What Should Be Done crashes into the reality of What Holds Me Back. This was one of those days.
Welcoming the Sabbath Bride
I pray that the Sabbath Bride will envelop me in a spirit of gratitude. Let me remember love and understanding undergird my relationships. May she help me make space for all the ways each of us are doing the best we can. Even the children who don’t do their homework and never want to go to sleep.
Today is thirty-three days, which is four weeks and five days of the Omer in the year 5781. הוד שבהוד, Hod ShebeHod, Gratitude within Gratitude. That means we have reached the extremely minor holiday of Lag B’Omer!
Rather than trying to explain Lag B’Omer, let’s sink into the heart of gratitude.
Finding gratitude in a raging pandemic
Perhaps the pandemic seems waning to you, rather than raging. Thirteen months of life turned upside down can make the depth of tragedy occurring in India seem disconnected from the growing availability of vaccinations in the United States. Beyond the current horrors, the existence of COVID-19 in itself makes it far easier to root oneself in cynicism rather than gratitude.
How to stay connected to gratitude? I look at the blooming flowers outside my window. Marvel at the way my kids are growing and their bodies transforming. Watch my dog, anxious for me to join her for snuggles on the couch rather than writing this blog post.
Focus on the splendor of now
At the end of the day, regardless of what is happening in the world, there are sparks of splendor chasing us through each day. When I take the time to pause and appreciate the glory of today, gratitude fills me.
Today is thirty-two days, which is four weeks and four days of the Omer in the year 5781. נצח שבהוד, Netzach ShebeHod, Eternal Splendor. The pillars of the Temple within me. Endurance within Gratitude.
My day started much earlier than normal. I had a 7:50 a.m. appointment for the second dose of the Moderna vaccine. This means I woke my husband up early on his birthday to ensure I got out of the house on time. And then, I entered the never-ending wait. At first, I did well because I brought my travel siddur, prayer book, and prayed Shacharit. I got through the entire service before entering the building because the line was moving that slowly. Then, I watched as two people behind me got through the registration process faster than me, leading me to the end of the slowest vaccination line in the building. It was so hard for me to focus on gratitude because all I could think about was how much faster I would have been out of the building if I had made it into the other line. It must have taken another thirty minutes to actual get the jab. I barely remembered to say a blessing of gratitude.
Prayer of Gratitude for Goodness
The prayer I chose to say is: Holy One of Blessing, You are the Eternal Ground of Being, Sovereign of the Universe, who is good and does good. Barukh Atah HaShem, Elokeinu Melekh Ha’Olam, ha’tov v’hameitiv.
Jews never pronounce the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God. We often look at the word in Hebrew and say A”do”nai, which means My Lord. It is a pale shadow of the breadth of meaning contained in The Name. HaShem replaces the four letter name of God in non-liturgical writing. HaShem means The Name. The root of HaShem is the verb “to be.” It encompasses the idea of “was, is, will be.” Which is why some people translate it as Eternal One, while others say Ground of Being. The essence of being comes from God. This is the closest approximation for an explanation of the God I believe in.
Sleep is the salve for a weary soul
At the end of the day, my inability to stay rooted in gratitude is directly connected to my sleep deprivation. This morning, I realized that the fancy pillows I bought at the beginning of the pandemic have been destroying my sleep — they’re too large and too firm and my body is rejecting them, tensing up, and wrecking havoc.
Prayer for fortitude
Holy One of Blessings, allow me deep sleep. May I enter tomorrow full of gratitude for my many blessings. May my desire to help my children’s journeys outweigh my frustration at their pandemic fatigue and homework resistance.
Today is thirty-one days, which is four weeks and three days of the Omer in the year 5781. תפארת שבהוד. Tiferet ShebeHod, Beauty within Gratitude. The eve of my partner’s birthday. The eve of the day I receive my second dose of the Moderna vaccine.
Mystical appreciation for the splendor of now
Anyone who has watched Outlander or read the books can appreciate the symbolism of a circle of stones with a beautiful sunset. Perhaps we too will slip through time and find our one true love. Or perhaps we will slip into the deeper meaning of this moment, gaining appreciation for the splendor continuously surrounding us.
It is terribly difficult to stay rooted in gratitude. Especially in these strange, uncertain times. Fear, anxiety, and exhaustion haunt my days. While I miss eating meals with friends, going to the movies, seeing brilliant theatre, and praying in-person in community, what I miss most is silence. The long hours of the day alone in my home, sinking into Jewish wisdom. The beautiful splendor of silence.
Of course, I can remind myself that now is also amazing. Watching my boys grow in height and knowledge. Starting to understand the the particulars of their personalities. Accepting that they’re children and I can’t undo the fact that while I was in class, they ate the edges of the birthday cake I baked. (Before frosting and before tomorrow’s birthday.)
Holy wonder for the miracle of today
Most of today will be April 28, 2021 in secular time. Such an incredible day. The birthday of the oldest member of my family. My beshert (soul mate), my Chesed (actual Hebrew name). Throughout our relationship, we have known that Chung-Mau is the lovingkindness to my strength and together, we create beauty and truth.
We also made two amazing humans. Surviving together in grand fashion. Even sometimes indulging in pop culture and junk food. Surrounded by Chung’s incredible creations.
And today I will join Chung in completing my vaccination for COVID-19. Perhaps a bit of the weight on our shoulders will begin to ease as we walk towards full-strength vaccination in two weeks.
Prayer for beautiful gratitude
Holy Source of Life, help me to embrace each moment. Let me see with eyes of gratitude. Allow me the rationality to see the beautiful possibility in every moment.
Today is thirty days, which is four weeks and two days of the Omer in the year 5781. גבורה שבהוד, Gevurah of Hod, Discipline within Gratitude.
Family pets live within love and gratitude. In most situations, their interactions are expressions of gratitude. To choose a pet is to choose to live with gratitude and service. I choose to appreciate the gift of my pet. I learn from her how to enter relationships with an attitude of gratitude.
Prayer: the gratitude path we stumble towards
Recognizing gratitude as a primary intention within prayer transformed my experience of life. At times, the structure of prayer locks me out. The traditional Jewish service in Hebrew, a language I did not understand. The prescribed length of services, especially morning services, can take three hours (though traditional weekday services are significantly shorter). Nusach, traditional musical modes, dictate how each service sounds. All of these external factors can keep a person from finding meaning in prayer. And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest factor separating progressive Jews from meaningful prayer experiences. The oppressive, anachronistic God as King language dictated by our prayer formula.
Despite all these barriers, Jews are deep spiritual seekers. Many of the earliest (and current) American Buddhist teachers are Jews who did not find mindfulness or deep meaning within Jewish spaces. I appreciate Buddhist philosophy and other paths towards mindfulness, but I have always reached towards Judaism to find my way towards living meaningfully and thinking deeply.
While traditional prayer language chafed at me for decades, the space of Jewish prayer has always resonated with me in a way that other spiritual disciplines do not. Even when I did not understand what I was saying, praying in Hebrew made more sense to me than praying in another language. Actually, in recent years, I had to teach myself how to go deeply into prayer through English words.
Prayer: the conduit for a discipline of gratitude
Judaism offers three services a day and four on holidays. Each services has a clearly proscribed set of prayers, designed to take a person on a journey inward, opening space for Divine flow and transformation. Yet, that flow cannot be found if all of the structure feels like a brick wall. Plus, making time for anything can feel oppressive.
Rather than reprimand myself for not davennen (praying) three times a day, I choose to find a new relationship with prayer. This is my minimum viable product of the discipline of gratitude:
Starting my day by thanking God for the breath that sustains me sets a better tone than immediately grabbing my phone and wandering into social media rabbit holes. Taking time to stretch and appreciate the body that carries me through the day. Thinking through my responsibilities this day as I get dressed and ready. Pausing before I put food in my mouth, to thank the Source of Life, the people who farmed the food, and the person who prepared the food. Ideally, closing each meal with a prayer of gratitude for my satiation. Ending the day with reflection and a prayer to connect myself with the Source of Life.
Prayer for the discipline of gratitude
May I find the discipline of gratitude that opens me to the depths of my being, making space to allow myself to be of service to others. And through this discipline and service, may I feel connected to the Divine flow pulsating within and around us.
Today is twenty-nine days, which is four weeks and one day of the Omer in the year 5781. חסד שבהוד, Chesed ShebeHod, Lovingkindness of Splendor.
Bridging the chasms between skepticism and belief
I do not attempt to prove God’s existence. I lived in the world of disbelief long enough to understand that written words cannot bridge the chasm between skepticism and belief. Yet, the doubt edges into the sides of my writing.
I know most progressive Jews do not spend much time thinking about God. And I wonder whether these posts find resonance with anyone who is skeptical. Or if people turn away because there are much more interesting things to read / listen to / watch.
Splendor, Gratitude, Humility
Most modern writers speak about humility as the outward manifestation of Hod. The root, which means splendor / majesty, is also used to form the verb give thanks (hodu) and the noun gratitude (hoda’ah). From there, people pivot to humility: the contraction of the ego needed in order to authentically express gratitude.
The other aspect of Hod is that alongside Netzach, they form the pillars of the Temple. So, this can also be a week of defining how to create splendor in physical reality: building space that is both centering and awe-inspiring to allow the soul to emerge and soar.
Lovingkindness, Divine Flow within Splendor
Lovingkindness, the tender consideration and support of the Divine as we journey through our mortal coils. Perhaps the Source of Life is not tangible in your life. The touch of flow is the hand of lovingkindness. Creative synergy, deep intellectual resonance, beautiful conversations causing time to expand: these are examples of the flow of Divine energy within and between us.
Creating space for Divine flow, making ourselves and our environments open to this vital creative energy is the work of the 29th day of the Omer. Chesed ShebeNetzach. Lovingkindness within Splendor.
Today is twenty-eight days, which is four weeks of the Omer, in the year 5781. שחינה שבנצח. Shechinah ShebeNetzach. Indwelling of Eternity. Is it possible to touch the Eternal? Is my Will a conduit of Divine Endurance?
Becoming a God Knower
One of the reasons I continue meditating into the Omer publicly is that these Sephirot are the most concrete definition of God that resonates with me. I was highly skeptical of Kabbalistic theology fifteen years ago. I grew up firmly rooted in rational, scientific intelligence. No natural compartment in me existed to file mystical knowledge. I try hard to remember back to my initial skepticism when explaining my convictions today. I recognize that some people will never choose a mystical path to God knowledge. Some people cling to agnosticism as a badge of honor, a sign of intellect. Some people root themselves in atheism, secure within a humanist understanding of human flourishing.
Counting the Omer is how I sunk into the reality of the Divine and the importance of continuing Jewish wisdom. Our concepts and rituals are deeply soul nourishing. My soul expands with every revolution around the sun because I track time by the moon and hold myself accountable to the changing seasons.
Sephira: Emanation, Sephirot: Emanations
A sephira means “number,” and in Jewish mysticism it reflects an aspect of the Divine that can be understood by humans. Jewish mysticism built on neo-Platonism in developing an emanatory system of Ideals that lead towards the Infinite / Unknowable Essence of God. Through the ten sephirot (-ot is a common plural ending for Hebrew words), we reach towards the Eternal. While the language is multi-vocal, it is not meant to proclaim multiple divines. Rather, it is a way of concretizing the multi-faceted nature of divinity.
There are ten sephirot. The top three are the hardest to fully know, closest to the knowing beyond language. They live purely in the realm of Ideals and are not part of the counting of the Omer.
The Lower Seven
The Omer countes the lower seven sephirot. These emanations connect most closely with humans. They exist as triads. Shekhinah stands alone in exile. Chesed begins a triad. He exists in tension with his opposite, Gevurah. Tiferet synthesizes their energy. In the androcentric, pre-modern understanding of creation, life begins on the male side (Chesed) and its opposite, the receptacle, the feminine, can also be a conduit of evil. The Other Side, the Sitra Achra, enters the world through Gevurah, the Strength that lives in tension with Chesed, Lovingkindness.
Another confusing thing about the sephirot is that some of them go by multiple names, and there are multiple ways to describe a sephira in English. Again, this is because the Infinite is beyond the stricture of language.
Also, I choose to learn Jewish wisdom without apologetics. I am not going to try to explain away misogyny, although I do have sympathy for the triumphalism inherent in many of our texts. After all, for the majority of our history, Jews have been a nation without political sovereignty, a minority used by authorities to carry out unsavory elements of government (like tax collection), and cast out / slaughtered of when our power grew too deep (especially when sovereigns could not afford to pay back their loans).
With all this in mind, my meditations on the Omer count attempt to connect the eternal essence of these sephirot with my lived experience.
Ascending towards spiritual liberation
The Omer count is a way to count time from the beginning of the barley harvest (at Passover) to the beginning of the wheat harvest (at Shavuot / Pentecost) in ancient Israel. The commandment to count 49 days between Passover and on the 50th day declare Shavuot (literally Weeks) is Biblical. Overlaying iterations of the sephirot is a Kabbalistic invention. It is a meditative path towards shedding some of the spiritual shmutz keeping us from understanding Divine truth.
We physically leave Egypt on Passover. It takes spiritual fortitude to become vessels worthy of Divine revelation. The rabbis declared Shavuot as the day the Ten Commandments were revealed to the Israelites. Originally, it was just a harvest festival. So now, we walk 49 steps towards deeper understanding of the Divine, deeper insight into our soul’s experience, to create space for deeper revelation of Divine truth on Shavuot.
Indwelling of the Eternal
The Jewish people and Shekhinah connect as dual manifestations of Divine exile. When we make space for the Indwelling Presence, the Immanent aspect of the Divine, we help heal the core brokenness within ourselves and within the world. This Indwelling can hold space for the Eternal.
When I align my Will with the highest ideals within me, my soul flourishes. The space for the Divine within material reality grows. The pure Indwelling of Endurance allows the Mother of Being to expand, spreading Goodness and Deep Meaning throughout the world.
I had the honor of giving a d’var Torah, thoughts on the weekly Torah portion, for Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock today. The names of the portions for today are Acharei Mot — Kedoshim. After Death — Holiness. I added subheadings to my reflection to help the reading process. May we continue to sink into being and strive towards holiness.
It seems quite incredible that two extremely important and idea-filled portions are combined this year. This is the same conundrum Yeshayahu Liebowitz faced when writing his pithy commentary, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven.Indeed, there is no way to work through the breadth of the narrative, so let us dispense with that idea at the outset.
Instead, let’s nestle into the name of this double portion: After Death, Holiness.
After the death of Aaron’s two sons
The text is referring to the deaths of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons. Which actually happened in chapter 10 and we are now in chapter 16. Previously, their actions were described. Nadab and Abihu approached HaShem in the Holy of Holies unsanctioned and perished.
The connection between these names and our lived experience feels very concrete for me. There has been so much death in the world. Yet, we have struggled to find our way to holiness. Whether in the Bronze Age or the postModern age, our access to holiness is not a given.
Making sense of death today
Sometimes, our political leaders have stumbled in trying to parse meaning from those deaths. Recently, Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked George Floyd for sacrificing his life for justice. Obviously, it would be far better if Mr. Floyd had lived through his encounter with the police, rather than being murdered. And he had no choice about being killed. This episode reminds me that no matter how advanced society becomes, we strive to make sense of death, to justify it and make it holy. Acknowledging the depth of tragedy in death can be hard. Protests against George Floyd’s death were an inflection point in the national conversation about policing and the conviction of his murderer furthered the walk towards justice. Just as Aaron’s sons did not have to do die to bring us towards holiness, George Floyd did not need to die to move us towards justice.
Similarly, it seems difficult to fully empathize with those mourning the loss of loved ones to COVID-19. So many people have died and so many people continue to die. Yet, what I see most often is anger about the changes made to communal life in order to protect public health. From the California gubernatorial recall to arguments about re-opening face-to-face learning to whether masks are necessary: our conversations are consumed by how this pandemic continues to affect the living. It seems impossible to truly hold space for the emptiness left by three million deaths worldwide, or the 570,000 deaths within the United States.
Moving towards holiness
So how, after all this death, do we dare assert space for holiness? I believe we need to take guidance from our Torah portions.
Here is my theory on the lesson of Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons:
Attempting to connect with the Source of Life is truly potentially dangerous. I have known far too many people who were lured by the false sense of clarity gained from drugs, who chase a mystical high over the cliff with catastrophic consequences. We must allow ourselves to be guided on our search for holiness, so that we don’t lose ourselves to the pursuit. This is the purpose of the instructions for priests on Yom Kippur found in Acharei Mot and the holiness code of Kedoshim. Guidelines keep us safe. Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming Aaron’s sons.
Holiness through Jewish technologies
We no longer have Temple sacrifice and priests. Instead, we have rabbinical Judaism and a multitude of opportunities to hold space for what is greater than ourselves. We can use the temple in time, Shabbat, to connect with eternal values. We build holy community in synagogue. Our communal prayer has the ability to deepen the holiness within us individually more completely than individual meditation. We weave the words chosen by our ancestors, thereby connecting our spiritual elevation with hundreds of generations before us. And reflecting on our own mortality, we can choose to break free of the habit of living and truly sink into the holiness of each moment.
Holiness is not an attribute that can be conquered or experienced continually. It is an ideal to aspire towards. Step by step, we can choose to align ourselves with holiness, to live towards emanating holiness through our demeanor, our words, and our actions. Our most obvious signposts to help us become vessels of holiness are prayer, kashrut, and Shabbat. Daily setting aside time to refocus on Divine connection and personal meaning. Consciously choosing what we put into our bodies, and verbally expressing gratitude for the gift of food. And delineating between regular time and sacred time. These are our technologies to walk towards holiness.
27 Days of the Omer
Another Jewish path towards holiness is counting the Omer. Each day, one can reflect on a different aspect of the Sephirot and deepen one’s connection with the concepts that bring holiness into the material world. Today’s Omer count amplifies the Jewish path of holiness. Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5781. יסוד שבנצח, Yesod ShebeNetzach, Bonding within Eternity. We choose people to form deep community. We prioritize bonding on an emotional and spiritual level. And through our bonding, we touch the eternal.
Today is twenty-seven days, which is three weeks and six days of the Omer in the year 5781. יסוד שבנצח, Yesod ShebeNetzach, Bonding within Eternity.
Find your people and prioritize them
Finding your people is more important than any job or material possession. Remembering to prioritize them, and prioritize your own human journey are keys to a fulfilling life. Whatever your life circumstance — whether you are single or partnered, a parent or childfree: a key ingredient to a fulfilled life is a sense of belonging. Finding your people, building your family by choice and your larger chosen community: these are essential aspect of life.
Then you have to prioritize your people. Do not dismiss the opportunity to talk. Real conversations require one’s full attention, which might be why they are so few and far between. Relish the opportunity to witness someone else flowering into themselves.
Build community by holding space for emotional journeys
More than anything we do with other people, it is how we witness their emotional journeys that impacts them the most. People need to be seen and heard for who they are. We humans need to matter existentially to other people. We need to know that our presence is valued and that our absence makes us missed.
Similarly, raising children is not primarily about whether they finish their homework or make you proud through other accomplishments. It is about accompanying souls on the journey towards adulthood. Helping souls awaken to the breadth of possibility contained in being alive.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.” –Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Through this bonding, we awaken to the Eternal
It is not possible to truly understand the Source of Creation alone. We must live in this world fully and completely to appreciate metaphysical reality beyond and within it. Our lives are both material and spiritual.
Embracing and supporting all aspects of ourselves allows us to grow into our depths and begin to reach the edges of the Eternal. By building supportive, nourishing communities, our Endurance becomes a natural extension of Divine Will.
Today is twenty-six days, which is three weeks and five days, of the Omer in the year 5781. הוד שבנצח, Hod ShebeNetzach, Splendor of Eternal Will. How do I manifest my connection to the Divine in the physical world? Does my countenance and personal space reflect my desire for communion with eternity?
My head is often in the clouds. Thinking about my to-do list, wondering about an intractable communal problem, or composing my thoughts. It is difficult for me to stay comfortably present in the moment. Fleeting moments of present awareness arrive when preparing a meal, praying, or talking with someone face-to-face.
Prayer as a way into Now
Ideally, prayer helps refocus one’s energy into the present moment. Remembering the eternity of every moment, I can let go of my anxieties and embrace the joy of being here right now.
Babies also capture Presence
Regardless of what else is going on, if you bring a baby into the room and I guarantee you I’ll smile. I cannot explain why my countenance lights up immediately when I see a baby. Let me hold your kid and I’ll be savoring that energy for days. Several newborns arrived recently. My radical amazement at the holy act of creation is infinite.
For me, the Splendor of Eternal Will is manifested through every new life. My deepest prayer is for every person who wants to parent is able to do so. And that as a society, we build the infrastructure necessary to support families.