Ten Days of the Omer: Truthful Discipline

Today is ten days, which is one week and three days of the Omer. תפארת שבגבורה , Tiferet ShebeGevurah Beauty in Strength, Truthful Discipline.

Tiferet is the synthesis of Chesed and Gevurah. Another name for this sephira is אמת Emet, Truth.

When we are truthful about our strengths; when we honor the path of discipline, we create beautiful flow. We sink into the soul’s rhythm. Rather than allowing the world around us to determine our emotions, we are guided by deeper truths.

Holy discipline is the hardest path

Holy discipline is the hardest path. Every step of the way, the Yetzer HaRa, the inclination towards destructiveness thwarts our forward momentum. The small voice inside your head that says “just a few more minutes on Facebook” or “just one more episode on Netflix….” that is the twisted logic of the Yetzer HaRa, driving you away from discipline.

There is a deep purpose to relaxation. Sometimes, it is important to turn off the brain. Yet, I think many of us struggle to maintain healthy boundaries and avoid mindless consumption. This is not a time for self flagellation. Rather, it is a time for self reflection. What drives you to continuously do things you want to reduce? What triggers you? What small step can you take to move towards the balance you want? Do you have a vision for what you’d like to do instead of mindless entertainment consumption?

Or perhaps you stress eat and give yourself stomach aches from piles of junk food. Would saying a blessing of gratitude before eating help you become more mindful?

The Jewish way: Halacha

Discipline gets a bad rap. The Jewish way, halacha, is designed to offer people a road map to a disciplined life. It is not the only way — indeed, within and beyond Judaism there are alternatives to halacha that are equally valid. Nevertheless, studying the masters of halacha and mussar (Jewish ethical schools) , can help lay the ground work for spiritual insight and transformation.

Discipline of the Omer

Spiritual insight can occur through counting the Omer. Meditating on aspects of the Divine. Acknowledging the cracks we have made in the Divine emanations. Making a plan to repair our brokenness. Counting the Omer does not require you to completely transform in seven weeks. Rather, it is a combination of small, incremental steps towards the person you want to be and clarifying who that is.

May we each take a step forward towards truthful discipline.

This day in previous years…

10 Days of the Omer 2018 / 5778: Connecting with inner strength and deep will.

10 Days of the Omer 2017 / 5777: Have compassion for where you are today on your journey.

Nine Days of the Omer 5779, Strength of Strength

Today is nine days, which is one week and two days of the Omer. גבורה שבגבורה, Gevurah ShebeGevurah, Strength of Strength, Judgement of Judgement, Discipline of Discipline.

There is a lion within each of us. It fiercely pursues the path of righteousness. With steadfast courage, it prowls and leaps, sure that it is sovereign and will conquer everything it faces.

Gevurah pursues The Good or The Other Side

That strength pursues the good and the holy. It can also be twisted and torn and turned toward the Other Side, the Sitra Achra.

Evil is not The Other. Evil is Gevurah torn away from its place within the emanations of the Divine. A part of Gevurah always yearns to be free of the boundaries set upon it by the other sephirot. While we may never conquer evil, we can do better at containing it.

The battle within

When we are afraid of our own power, we depress. When the world overwhelms us, depression covers us with a warm blanket of nothing. First, we must conquer the battle within against depression, self doubt, and heaven forbid, self-loathing.

When we rise from the inner battle, we must have a clear vision of the world we are trying to create, of the person we want to be. It is from the strength of our vision that we can face the evil that confronts us beyond ourselves. We must be willing to let down our protective stance and let love in. Know every moment contains the option to turn towards the good.

Teshuvah: turning towards the good

Teshuvah waits patiently for us with every breath. Ever vigilant, we know it is possible for humans to change, for them to choose the path of goodness. And so, we do not despair. We stand rooted in our strength and choose to move forward with meaning and hope.

This day happened before

Nine days of the Omer 2018 / 5778: This is the day of the internal / eternal battle.

Nine days of the Omer 2017 / 5777: Finding internal discipline while losing sleep with a child who refuses to sleep.

Chesed of Gevurah, Lovingkindness in Strength, Eight Days of the Omer

Tonight begins eight days of the Omer, which is one week and one day of the Omer. חסד שבגבורה, Chesed ShebeGevurah, Lovingkindness in Strength.

My meditations usually focus on internal work. Tonight, I contemplate the martyrdom of Lori Gilbert Kaye, who jumped in front of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein at Chabad of Poway, saving his life and losing hers. I think about the deep discipline of Rabbi Goldstein, who tried to speak to the gunman and re-establish the calm in his holy sanctuary.

Rabbi Goldstein is the uncle of a dear friend of mine. I have always admired the depth of intention in the outreach work of Chabad. More people than usual were gathered in his synagogue today. On the last day of our major holidays, we say a special memorial prayer, Yizkor. This practice started during the Crusades — because so many of our people were murdered in Europe by Crusaders as they made their way towards Israel.

Lovingkindness in Strength is personified by Lori Gilbert Kay and Rabbi Mendel Goldstein.

Embody Lovingkindness in Strength

We embody Chesed Shebe Gevurah when we meet violent hostility with lovingkindess. When we recognize that no one ethnicity or religion solely carries the burden of intolerance.

Tonight, we enter the week of Gevurah, of Strength; which is also the week of דין Din, of Judgment. When Judgment is not tempered by Lovingkindness, it spirals off from the Divine, creating the סטרא אחרא Sitra Achra, the Other Side. This is how evil enters the world. It begins from a holy place, an emanation of HaShem, and gets twisted into the terrible opposite of holiness.

People with deadly hate still contain a spark of the Divine, though it is buried and ignored and has absolutely nothing to do with their actions. Each person contains worlds.

We must stand firmly against anti-Jewish hate crimes, white supremacists, and violent extremists from all ethnicities and religions. We must equally remember that it is easy to fall into conspiracy theory rabbit holes, given the nature of the internet. May we firmly protect ourselves, while following Rabbi Goldstein’s example and speak compassionately in the face of hate.

Years before the growing violence in holy places

Eight Days of Omer 2018 / 5778: Discipline in service of something beyond itself.

Eight Days of Omer 2017 / 5777: The pure essence of discipline is love.

Seven Days, One Week of Omer 5779: Sovereignty of Love

When Love is Sovereign, we flow in the river of the universe. When Love is Sovereign, we dance with angels. When Love is Sovereign, the ocean of time moves with us and we are at peace.

Today is seven days of the Omer, which is one week.  מלכות שבחסד, Malchut ShebeChesed, Sovereignty of Love.

It is so easy to deny Love’s sovereignty. It is so easy to get caught up in daily reality, to allow cynicism and pessimism and righteous indignation to rule. That is the path of the Yetzer HaRa, the Inclination towards Evil, the Shaping of Destructiveness. There is logic in evil. There is justification in its petty ruthlessness. It is the shadow behind love, the doubt that lurks behind every strongly held belief.

We cannot ignore doubt. Pretend the Shadow doesn’t exist and it will grow stronger. Instead, we must honor it, support it by listening to it, and maintaining a healthy space for it in our lives. Let it know it is still wanted, still accepted as a part of the whole. But there can be only one Queen. And She is Love.

Completing the Path of Love

Tonight, we enter the final day of the first week of the Omer. We complete the circle of understanding the highest sephira in our count. Three sephirot emanate before Love existed, but they are beyond these days. The Crown, The Wisdom, and The Understanding exist beyond words and before words. Understanding gives birth to Love. Love enters the material realm, bring forth the deep knowledge that came before Her. And She contains everything that will come after her.

As we enter the Holiest Day of the Year, the day that graces us with her presence every week, the Day of Rest, שבת, Shabbat, we reflect on all we have learned about Love and about ourselves.

Love contains discipline, boundaries, balance, beauty, truth, endurance, splendor, prophecy, foundation. It is sovereign and it is immanent. When we allow Love to be Sovereign in our lives, we allow the Grace of God to flow through us.

Our human connections are precious. And we purify them by first taking the time to purify ourselves. By rooting our thoughts, speech, and actions in Love, we make ourselves better partners, colleagues, parents, and friends.

Acknowledging the Sovereignty of Love

Acknowledging love’s sovereignty means recognizing the limits of human bonds. Each human bond is precious and holy. Yet, if we do not take the time to work within ourselves, those bonds will strangle us and our loved ones. May we allow ourselves a momentary break from our obligations, our passions, and our beloveds. May we sink into the Love that flows through the universe

This day brings many ideas

Seven Days of Omer 2018 / 5778: The Presence of Grace is connected to this day.

Seven Days of the Omer 2017 / 5777: The Indwelling of Love.

Six Days of the Omer 5779, Yesod ShebeChesed, Foundation of Love

Today is six days of the Omer. יסוד שבחסד, Yesod ShebeChesed, Foundation of Love.

Internal vs. External Foundation for Love

One of the hardest lessons to learn is that no human relationship is the foundation of love. A person can be your rock. A human can help you navigate the turbulence of life. But, unless you have a foundation within yourself that is sturdy enough to weather any storm — including the loss of that person; you have not built a foundation for love from higher yesod.

In human terms, the nuclear family I chose for myself — my beshert, my soulmate, and my children — are the foundation of my outward expression of love. Yet, if I don’t build a deeper foundation within myself, that human love becomes twisted. I demand too much and give too little. I start to rely on them to produce feelings within me.

No matter what anyone else is doing, making yourself a conduit for love requires a steadfast foundation. When my children are whining to indulge in snacks offered by their gentile friends during Passover, they’re not interested in knowing how long it took me to make chocolate chip cookies with matza meal. At three and five, they’re not quite old enough to understand why I keep saying no. And that’s okay. Because my love for them is rooted in my love for something bigger than any of us: knowledge that engaging with Jewish tradition nourishes our Jewish souls, supports our growth, and leads us towards the meaning we seek.

A Daily Practice: The Transformative Path

Values are illusive and transitory unless we allow them to firmly take shape in our daily lives. This is why ethical mystics recommend Cheshbon HaNefesh, the accounting of the soul. Setting aside time every day to reflect on your actions and whether they aligned with your values. Making a plan to implement better habits, one at a time, step by step. One of the original Mussar texts is The Path of the Just by Moshe Hayimm Luzzatto. An even early text is Tomer Devorah by Moshe Cordovero

Start with Breaking One Habit

Even before creating a daily practice, you can start by looking around at how you’re engaging with the world and sorting out one change that can deepen the foundation of love within you. For me, that means prioritizing sleep. May I sleep deeply and enjoy my dreams. And may you find the strength to deepen the foundation within you for love today.

Six Days of Omer 5778: Build scaffolding to support the love running through you.

Six Days of Omer 5777: Beginning to bond with the Omer

Five Days of Omer 5779, Hod of Chesed, Splendor of Love

Today is five days of the Omer, הוד שבחסד, Hod ShebeChesed, Splendor of Love, Glory of Grace.

Often, people associate the word “grace” with Christianity. The word exists in Hebrew – חן, Chayn, which is a different from חסד, Chesed. The two words flow together in many prayers and poems. Chesed is often understood as God’s kindness and favor. When put into action by humans, it is often translated as lovingkindness; though it’s difficult to discern how that formulation is distinct from kindness.

The name of a sephira is a place-holder. One word can never describe its depths — we try to understand, clarify, and rectify each sephira over a seven day period of time. And yet, we should examine why we associate grace with Christianity. Is it because we think only Christians can experience God’s grace? Or is it because we have a tenuous relationship with God and don’t want to get too personal about an entity we might not believe in?

I fully believe that the sephirot are emanations of the Divine. That through the ten emanations, a person can come to a deeper understanding of the Unknowable. And yet, no human can fully understand the Source of Goodness. Though I cannot claim perfect knowledge, my rabbi and my logical brain agree on a few premises. As I learned from Rabbi Mordecai Finley, HaShem is not all-powerful, nor is HaShem all-knowing. I cannot believe in a God who had the power to stop the Shoah and chose to allow 11 million people to be slaughtered. I cannot believe in a God who chose a people a few millennia ago, only to allow 1/3 of them to perish. So, I don’t. But I do believe that I am not the cause of life. Though I gave birth, I am not the source of birth. The Cause of Being lies elsewhere. And in my pursuit of Goodness, Love, Justice, Truth, and Beauty — I encounter God and God’s grace.

All the words I offer to myself and to whomever reads these meditations are my attempt to understand the sephira in this moment as the person I am today. To be honest, I enter each night slightly terrified. Often, I want to say — read what I wrote last year.

Hod is more than glory or splendor. It is the pillar of prophecy taking root in the world. Hod and Netzach are the pillars of The Temple. When we sanctify our physical structures, when we dedicate our interactions to elevating one another. When we hold space for the holiness that surrounds us, we are using Netzach to increase Chesed in the world.

Is there a small voice inside you, pushing you towards a life of deeper meaning? Is there one habit you could change to make yourself more open to creating space for Goodness and Truth? How will you concretize the splendor of grace today? How will you manifest the glory of love?

Five Days of Omer 5778, concretizing the prophetic vision of love

Five Days of Omer 5777, when I struggled deeply to have a clear vision of Hod.

Four Days of the Omer 5779, Netzach of Chesed, Enduring Prophetic Love

Two children by Cheryl Holt via Pixabay

Today is day four of the Omer, נצח שבחסד, Netzach ShebeChesed, Enduring Prophetic Love.

We move from contemplating the fundamental ways the Love of the Universe can be understood in the physical realm: pure love, clear boundaries, beautiful balance. Today, we allow our balanced, healthy selves to be conduits of the endless eternal love.

The Omer count is about mending the breaks within ourselves, repairing the harm we have caused to each facet of a sephira. Prophetic love can quickly turn into self-righteousness. How often have your conversations devolved into ad hominem attacks? Do you choose to speak with love, even to people with whom you disagree with vehemently? As Michelle Obama clearly stated – when they go low, do you go high?

How do you bring forth deep, pure Love into your thoughts, speech, and actions? Do you remember to tap into wonder, trust, and fairness? This is the innate trifecta of childhood that can be lost in the “growing up” process. Allow yourself to sink into the truths that came without contemplation in childhood. Slough off the anger, fear, and resentment that has accrued over the years. Choose to bring forth the highest version of your consciousness.

May we each find our way to becoming conduits of Everlasting Grace. May we proclaim the healing power and pulsating energy of the Love of the Universe. And in the moments where we are tested the most, may we hold fast to the highest version of ourselves.

Day Four of the Omer 5778: Live from grace / love in every interaction.

Day Four of the Omer 5777: May love endure and may we honor its triumph.

Day 3 of the Omer 5779 Tiferet of Chesed, Beauty of Love

Balanced stones image found on Pixabay by RealWorkHard. https://pixabay.com/images/id-110850/

Today is three days of the Omer. תפארת (אמת) שבחסד, Tiferet (Emet) ShebeChesed, Beauty of Love, Truth of Grace.

Balancing the energies inherent in overflowing love and clarifying boundaries is the essence of Tiferet. Beauty comes from knowing when to give and when to stop. From the balance of Love and Strength, the wellsprings of Truth emerge.

Today, let me sink into all the messy parts of me. My ego yearning for recognition. My Yetzer HaRa, inclination towards destructiveness, yearning for more social media scrolling, more television, more fun. My soul, yearning for a more disciplined prayer practice and focused studying. We each contain these elements of self. None of them are bad. When they are in balance, we are in balance. Without the Yetzer HaRa, passion would not exist; we would not pursue our goals or our loves. Without the ego, we would dissolve into other people, never holding space for our own soul’s journey. Without the soul, we wouldn’t have the foresight to contain the Yetzer HaRa and we wouldn’t have a vision of where we want to go.

The deep truth is that all parts of me have a purpose. I cannot stay in the depths of learning forever. My love of pop culture provides a gateway for expressing deep wisdom with recognizable metaphors. And my brain deserves rest as much as my body.

I will stumble along the way because I am human. Balance and harmony are difficult to maintain in a chaotic world. Instead of focusing on my errors, I resolve to meditate more deeply into the values that guide me on this journey. The beautiful flow of traditional Jewish prayer is a river of meditation I can float on whenever my ego releases into it. Intricate ideas composed by erudite scholars sing to my intellect, connecting ideas previously hidden in separate caverns of my mind. And pushing forward into learning the nuances of Rabbinic Hebrew grammar allows me to commune with my colleagues who passed from this world a few thousand years ago. The love that surrounds me is greater than I can ever imagine. I will honor that love by balancing my human desires with my soul’s yearning. May I remember every day to be a receptacle of grace and discipline. May the overflowing, everlasting Love of the universe and its eternal boundaries flow through me in perfect harmony.

Day 3 of the Omer 5778: harmonizing the all encompassing love of Chesed with the Discipline of Gevurah, experiencing beauty and from that beautiful merger, allowing truth to emerge.

Day 3 of the Omer 5777: merge in perfect harmony the strict boundaries of Gevurah with the overflow of love in Chesed. 

Two Days of the Omer 5779, Gevurah of Chesed

Today is two days of the Omer, 5779. גבורה שבחסד, Gevurah ShebeChesed, Discipline / Discernment in Love.

I am not sure I ever thought it was possible to love someone completely without any doubt or restraint. I have never found that kind of selflessness to be healthy. When I was younger, I would lose myself in relationships and overwhelm the person I was trying to unite with. In my desperation, my overflowing emotion inevitably led to heart break.

The essence of the Discernment of Kindness, the Gevurah of Chesed, is being completely in love with yourself and your journey. Taking the time to reflect on where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going allows you to choose the course of your life. Existential anxiety may be a natural part of the human condition; but, it does not have to be the final word. Seeking deeper wisdom and a coherent answer to the question “what is the meaning of life?” is incumbent upon us all.

I used to fall back on the easy trope of discernment in love being the basis of the parent – child relationship. It is certainly true that healthy relationships contain boundaries. But it helps no one to create boundaries so thick we can’t see through them, or so high that a loved one cannot reach over them. True discipline is making time to uncover the ego’s desires and the soul’s journey. What are you passionate about? What makes your eyes light up?

It took me six years from hearing the call to attend rabbinical school to becoming a full-time student. It will take me six years to complete my studies because there is a hard cap on how much federal financial aid a person can take out each academic year. Some days, my doubt overwhelms me. My desire to be of service to my family, to contribute financially to our well-being, to be able to attend Sunday birthday parties — so many ways in which my Chesed wants to flow forth have been contained by the Discipline of attending rabbinical school. And the truth I am trying to lean into is this: my soul is on the journey it has chosen. Your soul deserves to live its own journey.

I am not saying you should also quit a job with amazing benefits to go back to school full-time. I am saying that no matter how enjoyable it is to passively engage in entertainment consumption, part of each day should be a gift to your soul — to learn to hear what your soul is saying to you, where it wants to go, what it’s dream are. And then to pursue those dreams with every ounce of passion you have.

This is what I mean by having a clear vision of yourself. Know who you want to be, and how the Love of the Universe has gifted you with the innate talent and unique drive to achieve those things. Grace is pulsating with every breath we take. Once we know what we hope to accomplish with our breaths, we are able to engage the world with true, higher-level Chesed. Allow your soul, and your ego, to take up the space they need. Fine tune along the way. A daily practice can help ensure the stories you tell yourself about your life align with your highest vision of your life.

In my theology, every living thing is born with a core wound and part of their life purpose is to heal that wound. I have come to believe that an aspect of that wound is always related to love. Some of us do not grow up with good role models of self-love, familial love, or communal love. As we differentiate ourselves from our parents and peers, we can lose ourself in the ego’s pursuit of identity. Ego is not the enemy — denying one’s soul, and denying the unique journey the soul strives for, is the true enemy. It is this tension, of holding space both for the ego and the soul, that permeates my life. Whether as a parent, wife, or wisdom colleague, all of the roles accrued by my ego have led me to one simple truth: Love is the essence of the perceivable universe. Love / Kindness thrive as Gevurah balances the system. May we honor the boundaries needed by our egos and souls as we share the journey with other people.

This day in 5778 / 2018, two days of the Omer, Gevurah SheBe Chesed

This day in 5777 / 2017, two days of the Omer.

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.