How to count the Omer

First, let me tell you something Rabbi Dr. Mordecai Finley teaches every year: the Halacha police are under-funded. Please engage in ritual however you find it meaningful.

Traditionally, the Omer must be counted every day. And by every day, I mean every Jewish day – which begins after sundown and continues through the next day. In order to “count,” one must recite the blessing while standing at night. If you forget, you can count the Omer without the blessing during the day of that Omer. If you completely forget, game over. No more Omer counting for you. Re-read my first paragraph.

So, how to perform the mitzvah? The easiest way to begin is to follow Rabbi Finley’s annual Omer calendar (pdf).

I also use the Meaningful Life Center My Omer app and the Chabad Omer Counter app. (I tend to prefer the Omer Counter, but it was glitchy starting this year, probably because Chabad doesn’t think you should use technology on Shabbat or a holy festival day.)

There are also books that can help you with the meditative aspect of each permutation of the seven lower sephirot. The Meaningful Life Center book is basically a paper version of what is available on their website / in their emails (although perhaps the emails are now not available for free). Last year, my friend, Israel Sushman, recommended Rabbi Min Kantrowitz’s Counting the Omer: A Kabbalistic Meditation Guide. This seems like a good resource. To be honest, I am trying to meditate my way into each day before reading other people’s thoughts in an effort to bring forth my own understanding of each day as it arises. In this, I have been aided by reading Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism and Moshe Idel’s Kabbalah: New Perspectives.

Additionally, my meditation draws upon over a decade of studying at Ohr HaTorah with Rabbi Finley and my courses at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California with Rabbi Ronnie Serr, Dr. Tamar Frankiel and Rabbi Dr. Tal Sessler.

A sephira means a number. Each sephira has hundreds of years of meaning poured into it. There is no one absolute definition of a sephira, or the sephirot (plural version of the word). The names are placeholders for larger, deeper concepts. Every system can be transformed by the people and communities that use it. And each year, as we grow, we bring a new version of ourselves to this spiritual process. May your counting help you become truly liberated, and deeply held in the matrix of the universe.

One Day of Omer 5779

I am in my third year of rabbinical school and this is the third year I am publicly counting the Omer. Growing up, this was an arcane tradition that we included on our second night of Passover Seder. I never knew anyone who counted all seven weeks and I never knew a meaningful reason to do it. An omer is a unit of barley. The barley offerings at the Temple began on Passover, and continued until the wheat was harvested and brought on Shavuot. In the Middle Ages, the Jewish mystical tradition added a layer of meaning to this count that has made it one of the highlights of my spiritual year. We are given the opportunity to journey within ourselves, to more fully embody freedom. Purifying ourselves through our meditation on the lower seven sephirot, we create vessels worthy of being filled with Divine Revelation on Shavuot.

Today is the First Day of the Omer, 5779.

It all begins with the Grace of Grace. The Love of Love. חסד שבחסד. Chesed SheBe Chesed.

The Tanya teaches that we should purify our thoughts, speech, and actions. It is important to begin with thoughts because those are closest to our soul and when we have impure thoughts, we tarnish our soul. I often stumble over today, wishing that one year the order would be changed, allowing me to work my way into Chesed rather than attempting to start from this place. Over the years, I have built up an heavy armor to protect myself from the world. I am rooted in Gevurah, Disclipline / Strength, desperately seeking Chesed.

When I hold one of my sons and when I chant the bedtime Sh’ma for them, these are times when I allow myself to feel the grace that surrounds us always. As hard as life can be, as painful as life can be, as crazy as the world around us can seem, the Soul of the Universe is emanating Love and that Love surrounds us from one end of eternity to the other. Today, I choose to ignore the stories I’ve told about myself all these decades. I choose to approach each moment with love in my eyes. I will allow pure Grace to transform my thoughts to their highest level. I choose to see the Divine Light radiating through each and every living being with whom I interact. I choose to meditate into the love striving to be actualized. I choose to give birth to the most loving version of myself. I choose to subjugate my Yetzer HaRa, my inclination towards destructiveness.

This week of chesed, may I break free of sarcasm and doubt. May I open myself up to full-throated, unabashed Love. May I see the Grace that surrounds me at all times and act with grace and humility.


Day One of the Omer 5778 / 2018

Day One of the Omer 5777 / 2017

Why Jews find anti-Zionism to be anti-Jewish

I wrote this in an attempt to explain why the majority of Jews find anti-Zionism to be anti-Jewish. I fully recognize not all Jews agree with this position, but it is the position that people find so difficult to understand. Perhaps after reading this, you will still disagree with us. Before responding, I hope you will take the time to read my entire comment.

First, if conversations are going to continue, words need to be defined. Zionism is the desire of Jews for self-determination. In 2019, Zionism describes the right of Jews to self-determination in the land of Israel.

Second, the reason Zionist Jews find anti-Zionism anti-Jewish is because our connection to the land is as inherent to our identity as the term Judaism. We are Israelites. Traditionally, “Israel” in our prayers refers to us as a collective people. It is deeply offensive to be described as colonialists — for centuries, archaeologists have been discovering how we lived in our land before the multiple times we have been expelled.

Third, there is a difference between criticizing Israel and being an anti-Zionist. An anti-Zionist denies that right of the Jewish state to exist. That ridiculous opinion piece claiming that no state has the right to exist is another piece of rhetorical deflection. At the same time that Arab states continue to keep Palestinians in refugee camps for generations, they were expelling their Jewish citizens. This is not a “gotcha” question. It is a question that clears the way for understanding whether there is any room for discussion. North American Indigenous nations exist within the reality of accepting that the USA exists. And the constant analogies to indigenous people is also offensive.

Here’s the thing: I try hard not to use the term “anti-Semitic.” I do not deny that as a Jew, I am a Semite.* But I also understand the term was created because people found it too difficult to broach the words “Jew” and “Jewish.” And yes, it is anti-Jewish to deny our right to self-determination. I get that not all Jews feel the need / want to be associated with Israel. The majority of us, and more importantly the majority of us who live there, want Israel to exist. That’s what self-determination means. It means that collectively, we made a decision and our collective decision was recognized by the United Nations. The existence of the state of Israel is not racist. The actions of the Israeli government, like the actions of any government, can be critiqued. But when you claim our state, and only our state, does not deserve to exist, then you are anti-Jewish. That is why anti-Zionism is such an offensive term and ideology to Jews.

*And let’s go back to the understanding that Jews are Semites. We’ve been kicked off our ancestral land generation after generation, century after century. We were murdered in Europe and Israel during the Crusades. Islamic rulers pushed us out. And then we came back. We are not colonizers. We are indigenous people returning to our land. Should Israelis find a peaceful way to co-exist with Palestinians? Absolutely! Does that mean accepting the “right of return” for everyone claiming Palestinian heritage? No. Modern states divide territory between peoples who have competing, legitimate desire to the land.

This is the world view that progressive Jewish sisters are asking you to understand.

It is also worth questioning: why is this the one and only foreign policy issue that “must be part of the collective platform of the movement for women’s rights.” There are more than two sides to any geopolitical dispute. And women’s rights in the United States are not dependent on the successful negotiation of peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Just as our rights are not dependent on Rohingya women in Burma being able to live freely, or any religious people in China (Muslim, Jewish, Christian), or Tibetans. Fundamentally, there is a distinction between gathering for women’s equality and advocating on foreign policy. And it is worth questioning why it is so easy to call out, and indeed demonize, Jews in the “pursuit of peace.”

Elections alone do not define us

My heart is heavy. I cannot watch any more election coverage. I cannot listen to the normalization of hatred and fear.

One thing is clear: calling people out on racism is not a winning political strategy. Before you throw shade at me, please hear me out. Humans have internalized that the abstract idea of “racism” is bad. And therefore, they are not interested in having their identities mired by it. Humans who have been fed a steady diet of hate and fear are out to protect the people and places they love. They don’t even care that their politicians lie. As long as you’re on their side, they will keep voting.

And here’s the thing: as more and more of the population gathers in cities, the vast majority of governorships and Senate races will be among these scared white people.

I could say a lot about how fearful I am of this wave of hate. There’s a reason anti-Jewish acts have reached a fever pitch in this country. We have always been the first line of hate for fearful white people. Not to mention how easily all politicians disparage China / “the Chinese.” As if the Chinese economy was created in a vacuum and not deeply intertwined with the profit margins of corporations based in the United States.

So yes, I have many, many political thoughts. And yet, I have never been more certain that political rhetoric will not heal this nation. Absolutely, we need to do our civic duty. It is our responsibility as citizens to vote in every single election. And those who feel called to volunteer during elections should do so. But these actions alone will not heal us, nor will they stem the tide of hate and fear.

What we need most is civility. You may bash me for “expecting respectability politics.” But I know from personal experience that the only way to strengthen the bonds of community is to see each other’s souls and build bridges beyond politics. My soul was deeply wounded by being called a “self-hating Jew.” We cannot afford to denigrate our neighbors for their misguided politics. We will never be able to out hate the haters. Only love can move us forward.

I am no longer looking for a Blue wave of salvation. I am praying for Divine guidance to help us strengthen the bonds between each other, neighbor to neighbor. Not by mass texting people you’ve never met. Actually attending events in your city, meeting people face to face. Building bonds of trust that will outlast the darkness.

And maybe we all need to think about a news media diet. Not just demand it of our Fox viewing relatives. Really ask yourself if your podcast feed, social media feed, and TV habits are helping you find the wellspring of joy, the soul nourishment necessary to keep going through the dark days ahead. I know I’m rethinking listening to Rachel Maddow, The Daily, and Up First as I greet the day. I know I’m more likely to become the person I want to be if I figure out a way to wake up earlier and pray rather than forging headlong into the divisive world of politics straight from the collective realm of dreams.

I voted today because it is my responsibility as a citizen. But the outcome of two-party elections cannot define the course of our country. I refuse to be swept up in the narratives analyzing this election.

I’m not going to hide under a rock and pretend the world isn’t spinning. But I’ve never been more convinced that the way we talk about our collective life is part of the problem. Relying on the news media who avoid the word “lie” because the current President of the United States lies so much that using the word would make it meaningless won’t heal us. Nor will it make my family safer to know just how much “the blue wave failed” as I heard  earlier tonight on CNN. Our future is not determined by who sits in the White House, Congress, or the State House. As important as elections are, they are only the beginning of the process. My primary identity is not with a political party, it is with the souls that surround me. I am thoroughly convinced that our compassion is stronger than their hate.

My innocent Chinese Jewish sons, and all of our children, including the ones ripped from their parents at the border, deserve better. I choose to bend the arc of the moral universe with radical hospitality and deep love. Will you join me?

Thirteen Martyrs

Thirteen people were murdered last week by white supremacists.

On Wednesday, Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, were murdered at a Kroger supermarket in Kentucky. Mr. Stallard was at the supermarket with his ten year-old grandson to buy posterboard for a school project.

On Saturday, eleven Jews were slaughtered at the beginning of their Shabbat services in Pittsburgh. Joyce Feinberg, 75, a research specialist at the University of Pittsburgh, mother and grandmother. Irving Younger, 69, a greeter at shul. Melvin Wax, father and grandfather, always in a good mood. Rose Mallinger, 97, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; her daughter was injured in the attack. Bernice Simon, 84 and her husband, Sylvan Simon, 86; were married at the Tree of Life Synagogue more than 60 years ago. Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, primary care physician and an early healthcare provider for HIV treatment. Richard Gottfried, 65, dentist who dedicated time to helping those without insurance and underinsured. Daniel Stein, 71, recently became a grandfather and attended Shabbat services every week. Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and his brother David Rosenthal, 54. Developmentally disabled brothers who greeted everyone who came to shul with a smile and a prayer book.

As my teacher, Dr. Rabbi Elijah Schochet confirmed, the slain Jews are Kedoshim HaShem, their deaths are a sanctification of God’s name, they are among the martyrs of Israel. We are commanded to choose life, and never to seek out death. Thus, Jewish martyrdom is not about choosing to die for your religion. Indeed, over the course of history, most of our martyrs were not given any choice in the matter. Now, I can understand that stating these murders are holy deaths can be disconcerting. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg points out, we must understand the context of their martyrdom and challenge the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States.

HaShem Yikom Damam. May HaShem avenge their blood. This is the traditional statement regarding martyrs. Wendy Kenin wrote a concise explanation of Jewish martyrdom in The Times of Israel, calling upon the wisdom of Rabbanit Sabrina Schneider.

There is a difference between avenge, the goal being justice and revenge which is angry retaliation. Even if in self defense a person kills an assailant, justice is in the jurisdiction of the Almighty.

It makes sense that the Jewish honorifics in these situations leaves the solution to Hashem the true Judge, similar to saying Baruch Dayan HaEmet or “Blessed is the true Judge,” which is a common term from our liturgy used after a person passes, sometimes with family members practicing the custom of tearing their clothing. But in the case of cold blood murder, it is an expression of our humanity to recognize there is an injustice that we do not accept when a Jew has been martyred while still maintaining faith in the ultimate outcome.

Rabbanit Schneider elaborates, “Jewish martyrdom is unique in that it isn’t something that the Jew seeks. Contrary to radical Islam, martyrdom is not glorified. Only G-d is glorified. Living a life in service to the Creator is what the Torah Jew ultimately seeks with the ultimate goal of perfecting all of humankind.”

More common honorifics for the deceased are “May their memory be a blessing,” or “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion.” But for the anti-Semitic act of murdering Jews just for being Jews, we need a clearer statement that acknowledges the horror and injustice — one that does not invoke hate, one that does not perpetuate the cycle of violence, one that is inclusive of those sentiments of comfort, blessings, and faith. The phrase for martyred Jews already exists and has been in use for generations, “May Hashem avenge their blood.”

I reflect on this teaching because it is so painful that these murders are being shuffled away in the onslaught of the news cycle. I have felt the normalization of white supremacist rhetoric since Trump declared his candidacy. I have witnessed the rise in anti-Semitism, racism, and hate. And when a Christian wore a tallit and invoked Jesus before Vice President Mike Pence spoke at a rally yesterday, my political animosity boiled over. Like many Jewish Americans, I blamed Pence and his forceful evangelism for the slight. I seemed to be one of the first in my circles to learn that Lena Epstein, a Jewish Republican candidate for Congress, took responsibility for inviting the Jew for Jesus Messianic Christian as a sign of “religious tolerance.”

And as I signed off Twitter last night, I worried that I was letting my emotions get the better of me. I don’t want to speak out of anger. I want to transform my anger into righteous action that honors the souls of everyone around me, including people who cannot see how hurtful they are being. This is an important turning point for understanding the reality of the threat that surrounds us. Words matter. Choices matter. Three days after a massacre, allow a Jewish clergy person to stand up and say a benediction. Allow us to mourn our dead and acknowledge the horror and injustice, without invoking hate and without fake universalism. Each specific act of hate must be called out for what it is. Yes, thirteen people died last week at the hands of white supremacists. Two died because they are Black. Eleven died because they are Jewish. May HaShem avenge their blood.

Shattered Shabbas

I tried to stay offline today. I woke up with this intention and I got to synagogue with my children without incident. I learned and I prayed and I experienced holiness in a way that has been missing in my life for weeks. I felt the presence of the Divine and I knew for sure that holiness surrounds us and enlivens us.

And then, before the Mourner’s Kaddish, my rabbi announced that there was a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and at least 8 people were dead. And he asked us all to join in the Mourner’s Kaddish. A few minutes later, religious school staff brought the kids into the sanctuary. And my five year-old was troubled by my tears. And my three year-old kept telling me to be quiet (because that’s what I normally tell him during the Mourner’s Kaddish).

I am a bit numb. A friend’s text chain brought me back to the reality of the world. (I had been trying to sink into Hebrew homework.) So I am here. I am here to say, I thought I was willing to put my life on the line when I tried to become a career diplomat after college. I never really dreamed I was putting my family in harm’s way by trying to become a rabbi.

This I know for sure: we are all less safe with Donald Trump as president. Nazis and white supremacists of every stripe have come out of the woodwork in the last two years like never before. There is a chasm of difference between deeply felt political disagreements and incitement to violence. Blaming George Soros and globalists for your grievances is the path of anti-Semitic hate mongers.

And this I know for sure: holiness is real. We are all soul-endowed beings. May we cling to the good. May we be shepherds of goodness. May our actions honor the holy souls within us. And may our passion and our reason be united to speak holy words of truth.

Vote on November 6th. My life depends on it. Yours does too.

Reclaiming my voice

In 2001, I became a blogger. It was a core aspect of my identity until life got in the way. I wasn’t particularly successful. Like most folks, I didn’t think branding or audience size were the reasons to write. I wrote because I have to. My soul thinks in paragraphs, speaks in poetry, moves with music. Somewhere along the way, I forgot how soul nourishing it is to blog. And now I’m back.

While I am the first to acknowledge my brokenness, I do not intend to write solely about the Dark. I named my blog what I did because I have a deep belief in Lurianic Kabbalah. The material world exists because the Divine made space for the other. The vessels holding in the Light shattered. Each of us is uniquely broken and our life’s work is to acknowledge the brokenness within and work to repair it. By repairing ourselves, we repair the world.

I am a forty year-old full-time student. Sometimes, the weight of my age, the weight of my curved turns in life, the non-existent through-line of my life, my over-dependence on hyphenating nouns, all of it weighs me down. It is far too easy to look in the rear view mirror. So yes, I’m in my third year of school, studying to become a rabbi. I’ve hesitated to start writing because I want a complete message to share with the world. As an incredible movie reminded me, the journey is more interesting than the destination.

My soul’s first language is Judaism. A dozen years ago, I found the human words to articulate why this ancient wisdom clings to me. My Uncle Paul introduced me to Rabbi Mordecai Finley and Ohr HaTorah. Rabbi Finley taught me the deep mystical and ethical undercurrent of Jewish life. He co-founded a seminary designed especially for mid-career transitions. And now, I am a student at Academy for Jewish Religion, California. I have the incredible opportunity to swim in the seas of depth.

To be clear: Judaism is the site of my deepest love and my deepest hurt. I was rejected because of my family’s precarious financial situation as a teenager. I was cast out in college for expressing Palestinian solidarity. My rabbi committed suicide. I spent a decade in the wilderness. And then, I got thyroid cancer. A year after my treatment ended, I decided to ignore the voice in my head telling me I’d never be accepted at a Zionist synagogue and joined my uncle for Shabbat services. Over the last dozen years, I’ve reclaimed my Jewish identity, developed a personal connection to the need for the Jewish state, a love for the existence of Israel, and a deep pain at the divisions in the American Jewish community.

Mussar and Kabbalah, ethics and mysticism, are my roadmap. Judaism allows me to grow into a better version of myself each day. I’ll never be a saint. I might never fully conquer my anger, resentment, and loneliness. HaShem willing, my days will honor the souls around me and the soul within me. I strive to be a vessel of holiness and I invite you to join me on the journey.


First Day of the Omer 5778

Today is one day of the Omer, חסד שבחסד, Chesed ShebeChesed. Grace of Grace, Love of Love.

The Sephirot we count for seven weeks are the essence of walking towards goodness. And so, we begin with the grace that allows us to purify our souls. We have fallen away from our best selves and we worry we are not worthy. We are distracted by our responsibilities, by the news, by our newsfeeds.

The holiness within us and surrounding us invites us to take time to refine our inner essence, to sink into the truth we already know. Grace surrounds us. Pure love beats within us. This is not about another person. This is about connecting to the love that pushed your soul into the world and to this day.

You are loved. You are full of grace. You do not need to change a thing about yourself to be worthy of love. This grace fills your being, emanates from your pores. Allow yourself a moment to explore the possibility that grace and love surround you.

When we sink into grace and love, our interactions with others are changed. Our thoughts and feelings deepen. Chesed ShebeChesed is not rose colored glasses. It is an eternal truth quietly ready for all to tap into.

May you feel grace. May you know you are surrounded by eternal love. May you share your grace and love throughout the day.

Chesed SheBe Chesed 5777

Chesed of chesed. Lovingkindness of Lovingkindness. The purest essence of love.

Being of service. Being present to the holiness of each living soul and helping to elevate each soul to its highest potential.

I begin the journey of counting the omer – now with apps to ensure the busyness of parenthood and rabbinical school doesn’t derail my intention to meditate deeply on the spiritual values that connect me to the deepest parts of myself and the holiness that surrounds us all.

My beloved chose Chesed as his Hebrew name. If you know him, you have the privilege of experiencing the embodiment of chesed. May we all have the courage to express our souls and support the souls of those around us as completely and unselfishly as Chung-Mau Cheng. I strive everyday to live up to his example. ❤💝