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36 Day and Counting Up with the Omer

Week Six: Connection / Yesod

Day 36. Do not delight in issuing judgments or rulings. In the kabbalistic practice of linking the weeks of the Omer to the lower seven ‘fractals’ of divinity called Sephirot [which also means ‘countings’], this week coincides with the sephirah of Yesod. Yesod means foundation. Rav Itamar Schwartz links this aspect of godliness with the middah of hitqashrut or connection. We might long for connection. We also fear it. Our fear urges us to protect those soft spots within. We build ‘hedges[1]’ around our heart which we defend with the voices of judgment in our minds. Today, notice how frequently you are visited by the voices of judgment in your head. Thank them for their efforts to protect you and your heart, and then, for the sake of connection, bring hesed, unconditional loving kindness, in the place of judgment to those beings and behaviors that had been the object of the judgmentalism, in yourself and in others.

Day 37. Bear the burdens of others with them, and, if necessary, for them. Another obstacle to true connection is the often unconscious inclination to make it ‘all about me.’ When we share the burden of the other, we take to heart the implicit challenge in the middle of Hillel’s famous questions: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” In the midst of a conversation, can I focus the full extent of my capacity for curiosity, compassion, and care on YOU, trying to see, sympathize and support you as you are (rather than settling for seeing merely the projection of you cast by my own experiences, my burdens)? In so doing, we generate antibodies and immunities to the pests that attack connecting threads in a culture obsessed with the self. The secret to connection, sod shel yesod, is escaping the confines of the self and sharing the struggles, tribulations, and responsibilities of another – placing your ‘self’ on loan and pledging yourself in service. “And Moses grew, left confines of ego-self to meet his brethren, and he saw their burdens, and saw…” (Exodus 2:11). For many, this is cornerstone of mussar practice, and moral development.

Day 38. Give others the benefit of the doubt. If you must judge the actions of another, assume that they are acting with the best of intentions in all that they say and do. Seek the spark of divinity in the shadows. Judge others as you would hope to be judged. How? Have the humility to remember that you do not (and cannot!) know the whole story. Remember the truth that every human is made in the image and likeness of the Divine and is an invaluable and irreplaceable expression of the godly desire to connect. Place an additional weight on the scale of merit, a bonus star on the plus side of ledger today, for you and those you meet, especially the ones that tick you off. One practice is to speak the words, “Gam zu le’tovah, this too is for the best.” Even (especially?) if I cannot see it or even fathom it, I trust that everything, even this, happened (or is happening) for a reason, a divine purpose.

Day 39. Take a stand for truth in self and others. In truth, we are all connected. When we feel and think and act in a disconnected or alienated way, we are living in a lie. We foster disconnection when we hide truths and tell half-truths, when the person we present to others masks the self we know ourselves to be. Without sacrificing our commitment to kindness, speak the truth of your experience today. Allow your shadows to show a little more today – your anger, your shame, your sadness, your soul. And, invite a beloved to do the same. As you do, practice giving the benefit of the doubt. Assume the best intentions, judging on the side of merit, lest you add to the judgment, blame and shame that has reinforced silent sublimation until now.

Day 40. Take a stand for peace. Sometimes in a conflict we are confronted with the choice between truth and peace. Legend has it that the angel of truth was cast out of heaven for the sake of peace. Likewise, for the sake of preserving marital harmony between Sarah and Abraham, God was willing to fudge the truth about the reason for Sarah’s skepticism regarding their ability to get pregnant. While honesty and trust are essential to any healthy relationship, there are ways that our convictions can hinder the causes of peace and connection. Ask yourself, “Would you rather be right, or in relationship?” Is there a family member or friend that you are “not speaking to” these days? Standing for peace is not an act of concession or mere acquiescence. It is not passive. Be courageous. Taking a stand involves risk, possibly sacrifice, remembering that making (or mediating) peace between one person and another (especially between two family members) is among the four things whose benefits are enjoyed in this world and in the world to come (Mishnah Peah 1:1).

Day 41. Consider thoroughly their learning. As students, in a conversation, in a class, or in a book, let us check the tendency to write off the message – as not relevant, as not fully informed, as not for us, etc. Sit with it. Give yourself time to divine the wisdom and truth that is being offered to you. Bring trust and patience to your relationship with your teacher and you will reap the rewards. As teachers, let us remember that before we can expect our students (and friends) to care what we know, they must know that we care…about them, more than what we know. Sit with them. Get to know them as people, as learners. What are their strengths as learners? What and how do they prefer to learn? Honor the process of learning as sacred and remember that Torah is sacred if and when it nurtures holy relationship. Remember that the content of the instruction has and will evolve. The constant in the equation is in the partnership, the bonds, the brit [covenant].

Day 42. Engage others in learning through questioning and answering, in that order. First, question, then respond, …and listen. Give and receive in balanced measures. Rather that perpetuating conversations that involve two people taking turns talking at one another, practice the art of dialogue. Dialogue seeks to bring out the best in the other, and trusts them and their wisdom to help bring out the best in us. Today, we might make a special effort to engage our elders (parents?) and our children or grandchildren in the sacred dialectic of learning – for the sake of connection, the sod of yesod.

Week seven, Embodiment / Malchut

Shavuot is seven days away. This holiday is known by many names: The Feast of Weeks, the Festival of the First Fruits [of the summer wheat harvest], and the Time of [Receiving and] Giving Torah. This is the time to ask: What else can I do to prepare, to let down my defenses and receive the truths being offered, let them fill me and flow from me. This week aligns with the middah/sephirah of malchut, or embodiment. And the seven middot-practices prescribed here offer a deliberate progression that links action and intention.

Day 43. Listen so as to add to one’s understanding. Shema Yisrael, listen, knowing that “time is short, the task is great,” and there is much learn. There are many possible intentions with which to ‘incline thine ear.’ To extend courtesy and respect. To acquire the power that knowledge offers. To avoid embarrassment. To collect fuel for judgment. To avoid having to speak. Why are you listening [reading] these words right now? What is your intention? How do you hope to ‘add to your understanding’? What fear or fantasy might be obstructing your ability to listen to learn just for the sake of learning? What would it take to let it go? Listen and learn for its own sake, torah lishmah, to embody Torah!

Day 44. Learn in order to teach. At first glance this advice seems to compete with the ideal of torah lishmah, learning for its own sake. I have been rightly warned of the dangers of learning through the filter of my limited role as a teacher. Perhaps this approach is a warning against collecting or hoarding what we learn. We receive love so that we can give love. We learn so that we can teach. What Khalil Gibran wrote of children is likewise true of the words of Torah. “They come through you, but are not of you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you.” Be like the sea of Galilee which receives and gives the waters of the Jordan, unlike the Dead (or Salt) Sea, which has inlets but no outlet for its waters.

Day 45. Study in order to practice and serve. In the hopes of embodying the learning, I have come to ask the following four questions as I study: 1) What is the Torah, the story behind the story? 2) What is the middah, the core value or virtue motivating the character, shaping the action with an ideal? 3) What is the mitzvah, the moral duty or responsibility implied by the text or the story? And 4) what is the avodah, a SpiRitual practice, such as a prayerfully repeated word or phrase, or a behavior like kissing a mezuzah, that can help me exercise that middah muscle in an on-going way? Study in its fullest sense includes as much action (questions #3 and #4) as analysis (questions #1 and #2). Come let us learn, and practice.

Day 46. Promote the wisdom of one’s teachers. We are not just learning in order to teach, we are teaching as we learn. And we can promote the wisdom of our teachers with our honesty and our encouragement. When we presume wisdom, we often get it. Teachers, like students, often live up to our expectations. Raise the bar, within reason, encourage and guide with engaged, honest questions, and she’ll rise to the challenge and embody the expectation.

Day 47. Grasp and retain accurately what has been taught to me. After a lesson, block time to reflect, digest and take notes. Rabbi Nathan was scribe for the great Baal Shem Tov, spiritual founder of the Hasidic movement. When he showed his master what he had written, the teacher said, “I said one thing. You wrote another, and you wrote still a third.” The chain of transmission is a fragile one and all of Torah is suspended upon it. Before the end of a lesson, ask your teacher, “Here’s what I heard you say… Do I have that right?”

Day 48. Attribute teachings to the one who taught them to you. We have learned so much from so many teachers. This is a daunting and potentially time consuming task. If “there is nothing new under the sun,” nearly every word would require attribution. Why is citing and crediting sources so important to our tradition (and for my soul? When we implicitly (or explicitly, God forbid) take credit for another person’s words, works or wisdom, we are guilty of a form of theft, and it is anything but petty. Citing sources is an excellent way to practice honor, truth, and humility. The more we can be trusted to honor the Source of all Torah, the more Torah we are able to receive.

A 49th attribute to pair with the 49th day of the Omer is not recorded in this mishnah. Perhaps, there is a hint in the Divine instruction to Moses to “Go up to the mountain and simply Be There.” Today the ‘practice’ perhaps, is silence and stillness, being present with what is, living the awareness that there is “nothing but God” and that it’s all Torah –revealing itself in the ‘still small voice, or as Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shlomi poetically translates, ‘the subtle sound of silence.’ If we can be patient enough to wait for God to break the silence, we have made it to Sinai! Chag Sameach [Happy Holiday!]

[1] “Make for yourselves ‘a hedge’ around the Torah,” from the first chapter of Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Sages], traditionally studied during the Omer.

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