What? Teshuvah. Why would we be talking teshuva now? We are many moons away from the Days of Awe. Yes, and … Teshuvah (turning from errant behavior or unhealthy patterns; for years, translated from the Hebrew by many prayer books as “repentance”) is not reserved for the season of preparation and participation in the Days of Awe (Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur). Judaism builds into our liturgy and practices daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal opportunities for turning from our mistakes and re-aiming our intentions. It is our responsibility or option (depending on our level of engagement) to find and integrate these opportunities into our self-reflection and self-direction.
One of these opportunities for attunement (and atonement, where needed) is the practice of Counting the Omer (S’firat haOmer). Although many do this counting traditionally* as instructed in Vayikra/Leviticus 23:15, others choose to use the Kabbalistic practice of counting drawn from the writings of the RaMaK (Rabbi Moshe Kordevero, 16th century). The Ramak read the root (ספר) of the word “s’fartem” (you shall count) in Leviticus to mean more than just counting. He wrote that “sefirah” means both “mispar,” number, and “sipur,” telling a story. A third meaning of this root is “sapir,” sapphire, and the word we use for the different spheres of human and divine characteristics is “s’firot.” Thus, counting is also an illumination of the story of our emotional characteristics using combinations of seven of the s’firot (the lower seven). Seven s’firot over the course of 7 weeks allows for 49 different combinations. A number of modern resources can be found on our resource page and at neohasid.org (see omer counters on our sidebar).
This week we read a parsha (Torah portion) from the center of the book of Vayikra or Leviticus, thick with prohibitions and, for many, a difficult “rule book” to read, especially through our 21st century lens. Parsha Achrei Mot contains the words our sages determined we would also read on Yom Kippur, our holiest day, the day filled with teshuvah and deep introspection.
The words of Achrei Mot are filled with a very visceral depiction of the cultic ritual of sacrifice on this holiest day and follow on the heels of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, after their questionable use of holy symbols and space. First, the process of preparation that Aaron, the high priest, must follow to enter the most holy place – instructions for his purity and that of his garments and offerings. Elaborate descriptions of the sights and smells and the sacrificial animals follow. And, in great detail, both the use of blood (the life force) in the sacrificial process of atonement, and the penalties for its misuse. And then, more washing and purification instructions followed by the rules on sexual relationships that have been so painfully used over the years by those who wish to limit “holiness” to exclude certain holy and loving relationships.
In his commentary on Lev. 16:29-31, which establish the 10th day of the 7th month as Yom Kippur, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik distinguishes between “atonement” and “purification”. Atonement, he states, involves restoring our relationship with God and “relies on God’s willingness to love and to accept imperfect people.” Purification involves removing the stain of our misdeeds from our character (our personality, in Rav Soloveitchik’s words), and is reliant on “the capacity of those imperfect people to improve.” In counting of the omer, we can use the s’firotic emanations to illuminate and retune our inner emotional landscape and outer manifestations of our personality. Thus, at this halfway point from the Days of Awe 5776, we have the opportunity to recalibrate on our way toward 5777.
*The traditional practice of counting the omer involves recitation of a blessing followed by an enumeration of the day of the omer and the number of weeks and days that have been counted, and a recitation of Psalm 67 and Ana B’Koach.