Counting the Omer is a daily ritual that Jews observe between Passover and Shavuot. Passover celebrates the Exodus from Egypt and redemption from slavery. Shavuot celebrates God’s revelation to the people and giving them the 10 Commandments and the Torah. The Omer period lasts for exactly 7 weeks — 49 days.
As I’ve written previously, we can understand the Omer as an adhittahana, a determination. It’s human nature to count time: that’s why we have clocks and calendars.
During the coronavirus quarantine, perhaps you’ve noticed yourself and others announcing how many days or weeks it has been. In fact,the word quarantine itself comes from quartino — a period of 40 days.
In meditation, counting the breaths can be a way to help us get out of our busy, spinning minds and bring awareness back into our bodies and giving us a feeling of freedom from the constraints of our minds.
But the Omer isn’t just about counting time.
In fact, if you’ve been counting the days during the shelter-in-place quarantine, you may have noticed that sometimes counting the days makes the time feel much longer. For some of us, shelter-in-place has been going on now for almost 12 weeks.
The point of the attidthana is not merely to count the breaths but to stay present to how we are breathing.
Again: notice the past several weeks. Have you been ticking off the days wondering when you’ll get “back to normal?” Or have you been using the time to learn new skills and prepare for a new way of working and living?
Similarly, the point of the Omer is not merely to count the days, but about what we’re doing while we are counting.
This counting is meant to also be a spiritual accounting, as we work to refine ourselves.
The Kabbalists give us the map for a journey of opening ourselves to receive the gifts of the Torah, a journey for finding freedom within.
The map is based on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and its constellation of sefirot, the traits and drives of the human psyche.
As Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder explains in his book, The 50th Gate: Tracking Our Growth Through the Counting of the Omer:
Human interaction is a composite of seven elements called sefirot that serve as bridges or pipelines from ideation to expression. Each one of them must be in place and in good repair to ensure that our impulses to connect, to create, to help, and to support each other are implemented in the most positive way.
We bring these sefirot into focus during the Omer; focusing on each one for a week as a way to refine ourselves, and open our minds, bodies, and souls to our infinite potential.
This map of the seven sefirot provides us with a rich frame through which we can view all aspects of our lives: relationships, work, creative projects, home life, parenting, even mundane interactions.
Each of the sefirot is a fractal, which means that each one contains all seven. So each week we explore a given element in all seven of its dimensions. Each dimension is the focus of one day of the Omer.
Thus, the Omer becomes a 49-day, 7-week journey of self-examination and personal growth. Rather than merely counting the time, we are using the time. This journey of self-reflection and self-examination opens us to receive the Torah, not just with our minds, but with our hearts.
This journey is the path to embodiment of the core elements that drive the human experience, the long hard road from the seed of an idea to manifestation.
I’ve spent the past 7 weeks on this journey, and, among other things, it gave me a new perspective on what we celebrate on the holiday of Shavuot (which is today).
A New Understanding of Shavuot
Shavuot is a harvest festival, which may seem odd given its placement in the cycle of the year; it’s not a traditional harvest time. In the context of the Omer, it makes sense: we are celebrating the spiritual harvest from the 7-week cycle of the Omer.
Shavuot falls on day 50: it is the culmination of this process, a “graduation” of sorts. It is a day of rest after our journey along the long, hard road, to deeper embodiment of these 7 traits, and a day to celebrate completion of a cycle.
On Shavuot we harvest and celebrate wisdom and deeper awareness of ourselves.