A friend of mine once got me to watch a Steven Segal movie for three hours, just to hear one line. Segal was knocking the bad guy down over and over till he finally surrendered. The one-liner was: ‘How long does it take to change the essence of a man?’
So how long does it take for a foe to become a friend? In Judaism, during this time of the year, it takes 49 days for leavened bread to morph from the biggest food ‘no-no’ to the biggest food ‘go-go.’ On Pesach, not only are leavened products forbidden to eat, we are not even allowed to keep them around or even feed them to animals or give them away. We must not only remove foods that contain this Chametz from our sight, but also ‘nullify’ them in our mind. However, in a mere seven weeks, the time that it takes to count the Omer, when each day is a special mitzvah- we dive deep into challah, cheese cake, or, in Temple times, offering two loaves of bread as a holy sacrifice. What happens in between Pesach and Shavuot, during these days, to effect such a radical transformation?
As we reach the half-way point of this calendar journey from Egypt to Sinai, it would be good to also look at not only Jewish history, but most meaningfully at our own inner beings, as well as Jewish depth philosophy. Without understanding that our psyches contain comprise both a divine focused soul, and a self-focused soul, we might easily get confused.
The primary purpose of the divine soul is to assist the self-centered soul, or the natural soul. Some call the latter the animal soul, though I am hesitant to use this term nowadays, since we do seem to find examples of animals that risk, and even give up their lives, to save humans. In any case, the clarity that comes from making this distinction helps us on one hand, never to become too conceited since the natural soul can surface anytime. On the other hand, we should never despair, because the divine soul can emerge from the darkest depths. For most people, each soul can and usually will express itself frequently during our lives. Consequently, it’s vital not to over identify exclusively with only one soul, both in our personal perception and how we view others.
There was a recently popular children’s series, the first of which was made into a movie called, ‘The Golden Compass.’ In this book and film, the characters externalized their unique subconscious into an animal form, a kind of personal totem, called a daimon which sometimes supported and sometimes opposed the individual character.
So what exactly is our work during these seven weeks? It is to take the raw material of our animal natures and to shape it into what one might call an ethical/spiritual work of art- otherwise known as making fragrant bread out of raw dough. On the new moon of Iyar, I accompanied a bar/bat mitzvah class to visit a Zen center in Boulder and the Zen master explained the process of following and letting go of thoughts during a meditative state. He described it with a striking metaphor: ‘you have to know what kind of clay you have before you, before you can even begin to shape it in the way you desire.’
This is how I see our work during the Omer time. The kabbalists present up with six emotional qualities that comprise our characters and if seen, accepted, and shaped correctly within ourselves, we can move closer to these attributes as they manifest in G-d! As the Torah tells us, ‘To G-d you should cleave,’ which the rabbis explain to mean, ‘Follow G-d’s ways!’ Just how do we begin to constructively shape and direct these emotional-ego related qualities?
I think we can learn a lot from the Torah portions that are read during the Omer weeks. Many if not most of them refer to actual animal sacrificesteachings that turn most people off in our times. However, if we really try to comprehend the concept underlying the offerings, we come across deep and fundamental ideas.
In his final published teaching, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke about how different offerings represent diverse individual characteristics: Some animal souls are more like a charging bull, others, like a brazen goat, and other are like a passive, compliant lamb. Each of these traits, when they are used reactively and instinctively, are likely to produce spiritually undesirable outcomes. But if we can recognize and identify these traits and how we express them, we can direct them to more lofty purposes than our own gratification.
The Omer is one of the most propitious times to accomplish this work of awareness and sculpting. The six weeks corresponding to the six emotional attributes help us here. Interesting especially is that the month of Iyar which bridges the journey from Egypt to Sinai is also connected to healing. In fact there is some anecdotal evidence that this month of Iyar, when we count the Omer every day, is more conducive to both physical and mental healing than other months of the year. In our times, there is more and more information available in books and even online to assist us in guiding us during the Omer, to refine our animal natures.
In Temple times, the animals were actually right before us. We could touch them, lean upon them, and even watch them being sacrificed not only in our presence but also in our place. Though this process seems brutal to modern minds, try a ‘thought experiment’. Try seeing, as the Kabbalists as well as the rationalists like Maimonides, the animal as parts of our own being which are externalized and offered up to G-d. Then we may be more open to what the Zohar says: ‘the mystery of the Korbanot rises to the mystery of the Infinite One!’
Prayer is called Avodah sh’blev, service of the heart, but the word Avodah is related to an activity called ‘Me’abed et ha’orot,’ meaning, ‘Tanning the hide’ i.e. softening our animal natures to make them malleable enough to fashion into a divine work of art. We are aided in this activity by a mystical teaching that the souls of animals, including our own animal natures, stem from various types of angels whose only desire is to serve G-d!
There are so many reminders and supportive teachings and historical events during this holy time frame. Though this is a semi-mourning period in the Jewish calendar due to the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, it is also considered like ‘chol ha’moed,’ a semi holiday coming between Pesach and Shavuot. We have ‘Pesach Sheni’ the time that teaches us about second chances. We have Lag B’omer that teaches us that there are certain times, certain people like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and certain parts of ourselves that exist and can lift us above and beyond breakage and mistakes. And in modern times we experience both the tears and the joy associated with the rebirth of Israel.
The other Torah portions read this time of year, like the phenomenon of Tzoraat, the spiritually based skin disease, or Yom Kippur, or the ethical standards that are the foundations of civilization, are all mentioned during the Omer days. These portions help us focus on what we need to improve within ourselves as well as empowering us to improve. Just as one new insight can change the way we look at life, so too one step in the right direction, can lead us to a revelation we never thought possible. And if we take a wrong turn, we can forgive ourselves, be grateful for the awareness, and then move on. That’s why perhaps ‘sefirah’ means not just counting, but illuminating. If we can shed light on how far we are from our destination, we can figure out the best route to get there.
None of us are perfect, but all of us are perfectible, -meaning perfectly able-both with G-d’s help and with our own efforts. As I recently heard from a talk on prayer by Rabbi Shochet, Z’L, ‘Be the person whose prayers G-d longs to answer.’
If we can focus on that message during these blessed seven weeks leading up to Shavuot, we can reclaim our formerly excluded Chametz and transmute it into the newly remodeled Chametz of a fully integrated personality: we can turn our ‘beastie’ into a ‘bestie.’ Through this holy work, we can then, as the verses leading up to Sinai tell us, truly become full members of, ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’