Monday, April 9, 2018

Counting the Omer 5778

It's spring, and while Alfred, Lord Tennyson labeled it as the time "when a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," it is also a significant period on the Jewish calendar -- SEFIRAT HAOMER, or Counting the Omer. The 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are a time when flowers and trees blossom, when the weather becomes warmer, and when the Jewish people transform from a group of slaves to a nation worthy of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.  Much like the plants and trees, it requires light, nourishment, and quite a bit of effort to produce results. These books can aid in the process.


There are many books to use during the Omer, including
  • Counting of the Omer by Simon Jacobson (Meaningful Life Center, 1996);
  • Sefiros--Spiritual Refinement through Counting the Omer by Rabbi Yaacov Haber and Rabbi David Sedley (JP, 2009);
  • Omer: A Counting by Karyn D. Kedar (CCAR, 2014);
  • Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide by Min Kantrowitz (Gaon Books, 2009); and
  • Through the Gates: A Practice for Counting the Omer by Susan Windle (self-published, 2013).
There are two relatively new books that are excellent:

Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman's Sefirat HaOmer: The Significance of the Days Between Pesach and Shavuot (Ohr Chadash, 2018) offers a clear presentation of how the count inter-relates with the Kabbalistic sefirot, and the pages for each day offer quotes from the Jewish canon, significant events that occurred on the day, a spiritual meditation, and questions of the day. The entries are short enough to make daily reading enjoyable, but long enough to contain some real substance and ideas about which to think.

Journey through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer by Rabbi Yael Levy (A Way In, 2017) includes beautiful pictures of the American Southwest. Each daily entry is very succinct, with a line or two about the sefirot of the day, a practice, and a quote from Psalms. The words "journey" and "mindfulness" are a bit worn out from overuse, but the content is very worthwhile. 

Then there are books that are not specifically about Counting the Omer, but that focus on the same principles of character development, self-improvement, and improving relationships with God, other people, and ourselves.

Stages of Spiritual Growth

Batya Gallant's book is subtitled "Resolving the Tension Between Self-expression and Submission to Divine Will" (Urim, 2010). This unassuming little volume is the perfect complement to Sefirat HaOmer because the Stages of Spiritual Growth focuses on chesed (lovingkindess), gevurah (strength or self-control), and emes (truth, or tiferet - balance). Gallant defines the levels within each stage, so that one would hope to grow in chesed through the care and nurture of self, to the care and nurture of others. This is based on the formula of Rav Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900), a Chassidic master of Torah, but the ideas are timeless and the presentation is right on target and very clear. And there is no spoiler here: expression ourselves and reaching our potential spiritually is what God wants for us.


Yochi Brandes is a prolific Israel author. Her bio from the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature reads: 

Yochi Brandes was born in 1959 in Haifa to a family of Hassidic rabbis. She holds a BA in biblical studies and an MA in Judaic studies. Brandes taught bible and Judaism for many years, as well as creating courses on Jewish thought for various schools. She regularly participated in TV programs on Jewish studies, had her own column in the daily Maariv, and was the editor of a book series on Judaism. Today she lectures widely on bible and literature. Her writing is inspired by all Jewish sources: the Bible, the writings of the sages of Israel, Jewish law and prayers, the Kabbala, and Hassidic lore. Brandes has published novels as well as essays on biblical women—all of them best-sellers in Israel. She has been awarded the Book Publishers Association’s Platinum Book Prizes for seven of her books, including Kings III (2008), and the Steimatsky Prize for Akiva's Orchard (2013).

The Orchard is the recently published English translation of Brandes' 2013 book (Gefen 2017). It is the story of Rabbi Akiva narrated by his wife Rachel. The first 33 days of the Omer are a period of semi-mourning because during this time, 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva's students died. While this vignette is not included, Brandes weaves together the stories of Jewish Sages with the history of the period. The title is taken from an incident recorded in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Hagiga 2:1), where Rabbi Akiva and three other rabbis hope to delve into mystical matters, and he is the only to come out of it unscathed. Those who enjoy "biblical fiction" will want to read this one. 

The Courage to Change

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (1810-1883) was the father of Mussar, a movement that strives to further ethical and spiritual discipline by developing one's character traits, or middos.  He made the following observation:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. 

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.

The Courage to Change (Al-Anon, 1992) is part of the official literature of Al-Anon,  12-Step fellowship for the families and friends of alcoholics. But you can be neither and still need to change the way you relate to people, whether you need to detach from unproductive relationships, or to take care of your own needs without feeling selfish. This book works well for the Omer because it is a collection of short, daily readings, and it offers such insights as "Recovery does not mean that I have to become a different person. It means I need to start being myself again."

And for those who need a musical reminder, Lenny Solomon of Schlock Rock parodies a Paul Simon song to let us know that there are "49 Days to Count the Omer:"

And, our course, the Real Cats of Israel are enjoying the spring weather:

Happy reading!

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