Shavuot Sefirot HaOmer
Over the past few years, the somewhat esoteric practice of connecting the counting of the Omer to the seven lower sefirot has been gaining popularity in liberal Jewish circles. The usual structure for this practice is to devote each of the seven weeks to one sefirah and within each week to devote one day to each sefirah. Every day is thus dedicated to a primary (of the week) and secondary (of the day) sefirah. These sefirot then serve as the focal point of that day’s spiritual work. In the following pages, I will present some of the sources for this practice, and an understanding of the way sefirot can function as foci of practice.
This practice is based on a particular understanding of the holidays of Pesah and Shavu’ot and the time between them. In some of the classic rabbinic midrashim and in the later mystical tradition, the redemption of Pesah is neither deserved nor were we prepared for it (see for example Shir HaShirim Rabbah on verses 2:2 and 2:8). This idea is already expressed to some extent in the biblical narrative itself. Wandering through the desert the people still preserve their slave mentality, and repeatedly express the desire to return to Egypt. God and Moshe can take the people out of Egypt in one night, but it is clear that even to the end of the Torah they have not succeeded in taking Egypt out of the people.
Pesah thus represents a moment of redemption, which then needs to be reclaimed through hard work and an often painful process. This dynamic is preserved in the mystical tradition as the orientation of the spiritual practice of Pesah and the counting of the Omer. On Pesah, we “skip” (pasah) all the necessary preliminaries and break out of bondage into freedom. But then, the next day when we come down from the “high,” we begin doing the work we had skipped of truly establishing freedom in our souls. Only as people who own their freedom and independence can we be God’s partner to the covenant of Torah entered mutually on Shavu’ot. We engage in this work of preparation during the period of counting the Omer.
The Zohar describes this as an ongoing process of redemption:
When the Israelites were in Egypt they defiled themselves with all kinds of impurity, so much that they were subservient to forty nine forces of impurity. The blessed Holy One delivered them from the service of all other powers, and brought them into forty nine gates of knowledge that parallel them [the forty nine forces of impurity]…This is why we count them [the forty nine days of the Omer], beginning from the holiday of Pesah…Each day we are delivered from one force of impurity and brought into one force of purity. (Zohar Hadash, Yitro, 39a)
Besides being the number of days leading up to Shavu’ot, forty nine is also the number of years leading up to Yovel when we “proclaim freedom throughout the land”(Vayikra 25:10). The number fifty and the notion of freedom are connected in the mystical tradition to the sefirah Binah which includes “fifty gates of understanding.” Binah is part of a “symbol cluster” which also includes “the Great Mother” and the womb from which all being comes forth. The freedom of Binah thus means rebirth, which is the capacity to live in a way not determined by the past.
It is only in later traditions that other sefirot are involved in this practice. The notion that the seven weeks leading up to the fiftieth day are devoted to the seven sefirot leading up to Binah is developed in the writings of the disciples of the Ari. While they call for a restoration of forty nine aspects of God during these days, the work of that restoration is done in the human soul.
During these forty nine days it is also good that you have the intention to rectify all that you have wronged in relation to the seven sefirot. For example, during the first week your intention should be towards restoring whatever you have wronged and the harm you have caused in relation to the sefirah of Hesed. In the second week your intention should be to restore the harm you have caused in relation to the sefirah of Gevurah and so on through the seven weeks. (Sha’ar HaKavanot, Pesah, 11)
Understand the implications of this paragraph requires understanding one of the most significant elements of Kabbalah and Hassidut as a spiritual practice. While the work you need to do relates to your personal life including both internal and external interactions, the frame of reference for that work is the greatest possible – the life of God. The language of sefirot functions this way as well. It describes processes and experiences of the life of the practitioner and simultaneously the inner dynamics of God. When you work on change in yourself, you are changing the life of the cosmos; and when you devote yourself to changing the world, you are also working on yourself.
Sefirot are thus general categories but at the same time they are also intensely personal. As I attempt to explain something about the sefirot in the following paragraphs I will not offer a general introduction to their language and concepts. Our teacher Art Green has done this in many contexts in scholarly and accessible ways. See particularly in his book “Ehyeh” pages 39-60 and also in “A Guide to the Zohar” pages 28-59, particularly the notion of sefirot as “symbol clusters” beginning on page 55.
What I will present is the way I have come to understand those teachings through my practice. It is thus a somewhat idiosyncratic presentation of the sefirot, a mixture of what I have heard and read with what I have experienced. I do not think I have discovered any great truth previously unknown, or that I am expressing these ideas any better than those who preceded me. I am sharing this as an example of the process of personalization that happens when ideas are taken into practice. My hope is that this example will encourage others interested in investing in this practice to open to the growth and development that happen when your learning meets your practice.
I have been a student of Art Green since 1999. Certainly on this topic the meaningful elements I have understood and can articulate come from him. I claim as my own the misunderstandings, and the places I have managed to obscure his clear presentations.
Malchut is what is. Calling “what is” (“Mah” in the Zohar) a sefirah is a way of recognizing that everything that exists and that happens, just as it exists and happens, is a manifestation of Divinity. This includes both good and evil, spirit and matter, and all forms of physical, spiritual and psychological occurrences. There is nothing but God (ein od milevado, Devarim 4:35) and that recognition is what is being referred to by the sefirah of Malchut. Most “awareness practices” (Sit. Breathe. Notice your physical sensations. Notice the thoughts arising in your mind, etc.) to the extent that they relate to God or are used in a relationship with God relate to this aspect of God. Anyone who has engaged in such practices can easily understand why Malchut is most often characterized as a receptive sefirah. “Malchut awareness” requires the practitioner to attempt not to change, not to judge, not to respond but rather just to be in the receptive mode of observation, or even just “to be.” Since everything is a manifestation of God, ignoring or denying any aspect of existence or your experience of existence is a denial of God. There is no path to God outside of honest recognition of reality, or in the words of the Zohar – “open to me the gates of Tsedek/Malchut ” (Psalms 118:19); if you do not enter through this gate, you will never enter “(1:7b). “This is the first opening through which to enter and in this opening all other supernal openings are seen. If you merit this one you will have knowledge of it and of all other openings as they all dwell within it.” (1:103b)
Malchut should always be in relation to Tifferet. Tifferet is the glorious vision of the world as it could be rather than as it is. Tifferet is a vision wherein all forces harmonize rather than clash in conflict and all is revealed as being in service of love, compassion and truth. As mentioned in the previous paragraph we have no direct access to Tifferet or any other sefirah except for Malchut. It is only through our observation of Malchut that we develop a vision of Tifferet. The closer we get to an all-encompassing awareness of reality and the more inclusive our observation of the world is, the closer we can get to a true vision of Tifferet. To the extent that we are limited by our personal perspective, our vision of what could be is only a reflection of ourselves and our limitations. Thus Hazal teach that all the prophets looked through a reflecting lens but Moshe looked through a transparent lens (Bavli, Yevamot 49b). Following this, Moshe is known in the Zohar as the one who has mastered Malchut (Zohar 1:236b).
The challenge of life is that Malchut is not united with Tifferet or in other words that the world as it is, is not identical to the world as it could be (acknowledging the difficulty of achieving a non-biased vision of the world as it could be. On this see the comment on Emunah at the end). Violent clashes take the place of harmony, falsehood replaces honesty and alienation replaces love. In the language of Kabbalah this is “the exile (galut) of the Shechinah/Malchut.” We humans are called upon to use our lives to help bridge this gap, to help bring Malchut and Tifferet together, to help bring the world as it is one step closer to the world as it could be.
The core meaning shared by all symbols related to the sefirah Yesod is that of a connecting channel. Yesod is the step that follows Malchut. It is the divinity manifest in our ability and choice to step beyond observation and turn our lives into a channel through which Malchut can draw closer to Tifferet. Central to Yesod is the symbol of Tzaddik – the righteous person whose life is a channel through which the world as it is comes closer to what it could be. Every person just by virtue of being is an aspect of Malchut. It is however the choices we make in life that determine if we are also part of Tzaddik, the channel that brings Tifferet and Malchut together, or if heaven forbid, we further enhance the gap between what is and what could be. Raising this awareness was the intention of the 17th century kabbalists who prefaced every ritual act with a dedication to “the unification of the blessed Holy One and his Shechinah.”
Netsah and Hod are expressions of God as manifest in our most basic choices. Depending on the situation, we can bring Malchut and Tifferet closer together either by changing our current reality (lenatse’ah – to overcome – Netsah) or by accepting the situation as it is (lehodot – to acknowledge/admit/accept – Hod). God is manifest, as Netsah, in our ability and choice to change the situation we observe, to overcome limitations, to break down boundaries and by doing so bring the world closer to what it could be. But God is also manifest, as Hod, in our ability and choice to accept what is, and through the quiet of acceptance rather than the loud sounds of fighting, bring the world closer to what it could be.
The medical choices we often have to make when facing a severe illness easily demonstrate this tension. Under certain circumstances, the best response to illness is to fight it with every tool modern medicine has put in our hands and not give up even when faced with overwhelming odds. When we act this way, we are living in the flow of Netsah. But there are times when that fight is the wrong choice, when it only creates suffering and alienation for the people involved and the world in general. Under those conditions, we are called to live in the flow of Hod and by cultivating honest acceptance increase peace and love in the world.
But this is not only a choice of dramatic life and death moments. It is a choice that has to be made every moment and the life of Tsaddik is forever in the balance between Netsah and Hod.
Hesed and Gevurah are not formed by our lives in the same way the Sefirot from Malchut to Tifferet are. I have come to understand birth and death as the core representations of Hesed and Gevurah respectively. Birth is a gift of opportunity given to us for no merit of our own as we did not exist prior to the gift. Death is a limit and boundary set to every person, which like birth is set regardless of our actions and choices. Hesed is thus akin to the concept of Grace as understood by our Catholic brethren – an undeserved gift of opportunity coming from love. Existence itself is an act of Hesed – “Olam hesed Yibaneh”(Psalms, 89:3) – the world is established on Hesed. But there are many smaller manifestations of God as Hesed in daily life. The opening, the opportunity that does not result from your own actions, the moment that allows you to be more and greater than the sum of your life and choices are all God manifest as Hesed .
Gevurah similarly appears in daily life beyond its manifestation as the ultimate boundary – death. The fact that there are consequences to every deed is the flow of Gevurah known as Din – judgment (or the principle of Karma in the Hindu tradition). But limitations that are not the result of choices we have made (like death or other such occurrences that we do not cause and cannot truly avoid) are also an expression of Gevurah.
Although Hesed and Gevurah are not determined by the choices we make, the awareness of their presence is very important to our lives. The flow of Hesed encourages the choice of Netsah, which is to say the gift of opportunity makes change and transformation easier. Similarly, the flow of Gevurahcan encourage the choice of Hod, so that while we cannot form Hesed and Gevurah, we can respond to their presence in our lives through the choices we make at the level of Netsah and Hod.
Comment on the role of Emunah – trust
As I noted above, one of the challenges of stepping into the flow of Tzaddik is the fact that we (with the exception of Moshe) have no unmediated access to Tifferet, and our vision of Tifferet changes as our observation of Malchut grows more inclusive. How can we aspire to connect Tifferetand Malchut if we never really know what Tifferet is?
It is here that Emunah (commonly translated as belief, but more practically translated as) – trust, plays a significant role in our spiritual life. You may trust your own insights, your teachers, a written Torah, the teaching of your mother; but whatever it is, in order to function in a productive way you need to be able to act from trust without full knowledge or control of what you are doing. R Zalman Shechter Shalomi from whom I have been privileged to learn offered the following image for Emunah . It is like a person who throws a hook attached to a long rope over a wall in order to scale the wall. When the person feels that the hook has been caught on something and is stable, she begins to scale the wall. She does not know what the hook is attached to and if whatever the hook is attached to is stable or might suddenly move. All she knows is that for the time being it is stable enough to allow her to take steps up the wall. That, R Zalman explains, is the spiritual posture of Emunah . All we know is that for the time being the premises we are working with are enough to help us take some steps forward on what we understand to be our journey.
Rabbi Ebn Leader is a faculty member of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.