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.
Today is twenty-five days, which is three weeks and four days of the Omer in the year 5781. נצח שבנצח, Netzach ShebeNetzach, Enduring Will. The ability to reach beyond the inclination towards destructiveness and accomplish your vision. Ultimately, deciding to keep on your upright path, despite the many ways the real world fails to live up to ideals.
The pounding voice of external reality
The farther inward I go, the deeper I feel the pain around me.
Black and Latinx children and adults dying from encounters with the police.
Horrific abuse and murder of Asian neighbors.
Skeptical refusal to accept the public health imperative to wear masks in public.
Sharp clarity regarding white skin privilege. Others firmly rooted in the denial of structural racism.
Splintering anger between those who assert “white Jews” exist and those who define themselves as “white-passing” Jews.
The divisions within us are real and growing. Yet, these are only social differences. We build our identities around material world views, never allowing for the possibility that our enemies share our enduring concerns.
Counting the Omer orients me towards the Eternal and Enduring. I waffle between wanting to share the metaphysical thoughts inspired by the day’s count and feeling drawn into the never-ending struggle to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
Live into the truth pursuing you
I do not know how to compel a child to complete their homework. Clearly, yelling is not the answer. It is unclear to me exactly what is. So we plod along, praying that tomorrow the child will find the internal inspiration to complete his work.
I pray for the Enduring Will to complete this school year without pressure on my children or my spouse. May I have the focus to begin writing my thesis and the willpower to continue the journey. I pray the constant distractions that surround me daily are thwarted by my growing clarity and will.
Today is twenty-four days, which is three weeks and three days of the Omer, in the year 5781. רחמים שבנצח, Rachamim ShebeNetzach, Compassion within Will. As Mark Horn says, it is “a day for learning to be patient with those one is often impatient with,” Tarot and the Gates of Light, p237.
Though it can be difficult to find one’s passion, it is even more difficult to pursue goals while holding space for the people around us. I have been thinking deeply this week about all the ways my choices make me better or less able to be present with empathy. When I reflect on interactions that are less than ideal, I marvel at how I lacked the capacity for empathy. Whether it is because I am out-touched and cannot handle one more hand in my hair as a security blanket, or because my need to Learn More Things At All Times makes me a less than ideal classmate, empathy is often the missing ingredient. This short film based on a Brene Brown speech clearly explains empathy:
It is also interesting to think about the barriers to compassion. When I was isolated from my authentic self, casting about on a sea of malaise, I had no capacity for compassion. I lived for far too long stuck in a self-perpetuating story of isolation. Clearly, not every negative situation is self-imposed. Systemic problems make growth difficult for many people. Nevertheless, internal purpose and meaning build fortitude for life.
Choosing to be the main character
My life changed when I decided to take control of my story. Choosing to take responsibility for my happiness and sense of purpose drastically changed my life. And deciding to hold myself accountable for how my presence affects other people is the next step.
We all have bad days and bad moments. I do not flagellate myself. Nor will I hide from my mistakes. An honest, compassionate accounting alongside a choice to act better in the future leads to new horizons.
Today is twenty-two days, which is three weeks and one day of the Omer in the year 5781. חסד שבנצח, Chesed ShebeNetzach, Lovingkindness within Eternity.
Entering the Week of Eternity, Will, and Victory
נצח, Netzach, is a noun that means eternity. The shoresh, the three letters of the noun are also the Hebrew root for winning. This is a week to begin creating concrete manifestations of our path toward spiritual liberation. After three weeks of heady meditation, now is the time to determine how I want to act in the coming year. How will I create the will to embrace eternity?
Letting go of bad habits
I am not denouncing the self who spent hours watching mindless YouTube videos. Nor am I castigating myself for my pandemic purchases of fleeting ephemeral enjoyment. Though I recognize that wasting time and money are perpetual Achilles heels, there is something deeper I choose to contemplate this week.
Instead, I choose to look at how I articulate my political convictions verbally. Within online communities, there is a strong bias against tone policing. Yet, that is not the same cultural expectation in all circumstances. I have encountered people who have trouble hearing my words because they are reacting to my tone. My forceful articulation of political opinions does not always sound open to hearing alternative points of view. Though I am not convinced that my righteous indignation needs to be thrown out, I welcome the opportunity to explore alternative forms of communication.
Certainly, I do not enter all conversations with eyes of lovingkindness. My eternal will must begin from grace if I am to become who I choose to be. Without rejecting my convictions, I choose to let go of the eternal political activist within in order to make space for the emerging spiritual leader. To be clear, I do not believe I should stop being politically active. Rather, I choose to center myself in a different persona while fighting for a better world.
Today is twenty-one days, which is three weeks of the Omer in the year 5781. שכינה שברחמים, Shekhinah ShebeRachamim, Indwelling Presence of Compassion.
Shekhinah is the Immanent Presence of the Divine, the Spirit Who nourishes us on the journey through material reality. Traditionally, in the androcentric understanding of conception and divinity, she is a passive receptacle for Yesod, and all of the previous sephirot he represents.
I choose to see Shekhinah as the Daughter of Binah, the Heavenly Mother of Understanding. Gevurah, Heavenly Mother of Boundaries and Strength also provides her vital energy. Shekhinah is the still, small voice within. She urges you to trust your instincts and become the person you were meant to be.
Indwelling of Compassion: Heart of Joyous Community
Today, I have the opportunity to relish how beautiful life is when I make space for compassion to flow through me. I choose to see the world with compassionate eyes. Balancing my inclination towards judgment with the flow of Divine grace and love, I become a conduit for deep community.
Everyone wants to see themselves as elevated and evolved. The truth is, it is very difficult to surmount our habits and obstacles. …
We call to our soul: Come out, my beloved, my friend. Come, let us feely deeply and act accordingly: with faith, with love, with awe.
It is relatively easy to count 49 days. It is much more difficult to walk forty-nine steps towards spiritual liberation.
This is why we need to gather in conscious community. Let us support one another as we each grow into ourselves. May we have the strength to lift each other up through the struggles of life. I pray we never forget how necessary our souls and our spirits are on this journey through material reality. May the Indwelling Presence of Compassion guide us on our journeys.