The fifth of the Ten Commandments states: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).
My brother and I decided to spend Mother’s Day with our late parents.
No, we did not visit the cemetery. Instead, we sat on the living room floor, sifting through boxes of memorabilia. Without my brother’s guidance, I would have avoided the memorabilia forever. My parents are present in my thoughts, dreams, and feelings; that bittersweet ethereal presence is enough for me. My brother, however, feels that each photo and letter carries their imprint. To honor them, we must witness each one.
As we witnessed this Mother’s Day, we did discover for ourselves a longer life. Letters written to and from our parents connected us across the generations, and with significant events in Jewish history.
During World War II, we learned, our uncle wrote frequently to his younger sister, our future mother. Uncle H, drafted into the U.S. army, found himself stationed in Africa. To his 18-year old sister, he spoke frankly: I’ve been seeing quite a bit of North Africa…don’t let anybody tell you different, it’s war torn.
In March 1943, he wrote: I saw that article about Hitler’s supposed death. It is strictly a matter of speculation as to whether he is alive or not. If he did die I hope it was in the same manner some of our people were forced to end their existences.
Uncle H hated Hitler, but had compassion for ordinary German soldiers, required to serve a terrible cause. He wrote: I’ve spoken to many Italian and German prisoners already. The are a nice lot generally speaking but apparently misguided. They are as one fellow remarked “typically GI.” You know, that’s the army expression for soldiers. It is just the fact that they’re fighting under another flag and for a cause of hatred and injustice. I thoroughly despise what any German soldier represents.
Uncle H applied those same democratic principles when he gave his sister dating advice: I was surprised to learn that you have discarded your democratic views in regard to Service men. The only difference between officers and enlisted men is rank. Under the skin they are all the same. Personally I have had very little if any respect at all for girls who would only go out with officers. It is against my principles and very anti-democratic.
No surprises here: I know the U.S. army had knowledge of the horrible crimes against European Jewry. I know that Uncle H was opinionated; that he was close with his sister; and that she was a tough-minded future policewoman. But, coming through the letters, this all seems like precious new information.
Uncle H, as I knew him, was funny and sardonic, a commentator on the human condition. And here he suddenly was, dropped into World War II, reporting just as I might expect. And here was my mom, a future student of political science, receiving his reports; pondering world events; bemusedly accepting his dating advice, though all potential dates were serving overseas.
I know Mom and Uncle H; I know how they thought and felt. As I imagine them in this historical situation, I see it through their eyes. My own life becomes longer. It extends backward into events taking place before I was born. I participate in them, borrowing sensibilities already familiar to me.
In the self-reflective journey of counting of the Omer, we pause this week on the quality of Netzach, eternity. The word netzach is used eight times in the Tanakh. In some places it refers to God, the unchanging one; in others, it describes a human experience of enduring long suffering. Netzach expresses a divine quality, a sense of time as it might exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Netzach also expresses a human quality, the subjective experience of enduring for a really long time.
My uncle’s letters bring me into netzach. Not the divine kind, eternity beyond the boundaries of human perception, but the human kind, a sense that something endures longer than one might expect. Today, my life seems to extend beyond its boundaries. Events I once thought mythical become a living part of my experience. For me, that’s a very human taste of eternity.
That’s how I feel about being Jewish in general. The sense that I am part of a community whose narrative extends 3,000 years into the past offers me a sense of eternity. This kind of eternity seems attainable. After all, it is only 30 Uncle H’s ago. But it also seems divinely soul-expanding. To reach it, I imaginatively join with with other minds, experiences, and stories. When I honor my ancestors in this way, my own life becomes longer.
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At least, that’s what I’m learning as I reflect this week on the meaning of “strength.”
During the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, Jewish tradition invites us to sefirat ha’omer. Literally, it means “counting of the measure” of barley. And, in ancient Israel, for seven weeks people took daily account of the ripening of the grain. But in medieval, urban, diaspora Europe, Kabbalistic teachers creatively reframed the ritual as sefirot ha’omer: taking account of the sefirot, the spiritual qualities of God as reflected in the human soul.
Each week we are invited to explore the role played in our lives by one of the following inner qualities: Chesed/Love, Gevurah/Strength, Tiferet/Balance, Netzach/Endurance, Hod/Gratitude, Yesod/Foundation, Malchut or Shechinah/Presence.
Towards the end of this week of gevurah, strength, I find myself inspired by psychologist James Hillman. We talk so much about “ego strength” and “integration,” says Hillman, that we have only one picture of the healthy psyche: one that holds it together through all stress and strain. However, no person’s psyche holds it together all the time. Everyone falls apart once in a while.
Falling apart, which Hillman calls pathologizing, is a normal function of the psyche. It’s actually a strength of the psyche. We fall apart, says Hillman, so that the parts can speak.
Falling apart, however, does not feel good, so we try to banish it by explaining it away. Sometimes we label it by naming a symptom it creates, such as depression. Or we say it’s an appropriate response to a sick society. Or we reframe it as a step on the path to joyful transcendence. But the explanations may not hold anything together. Sometimes a psyche keeps cracking: therapeutic problem-solving doesn’t glue it together, and reaching for God’s pure spirit seems irrelevant.
For me, pathologizing is not merely theoretical; I have lived it for six years. After a car accident, I experienced chronic pain. Then, I experienced exhaustion from a malfunctioning organ. Conditions changed at my job, and my workplace became a daily challenge. My mother and then my aunt declined and died. (I sought treatment for injury and illness, and addressed workplace issues.) Publicly, people knew I was ill and grieving, but they also saw me cheerfully continuing to work, raise teens, maintain friendships, care for sick relatives, blog and more. Subjectively, however, I experienced depression, rage, and anxiety.
My family doctor had me fill out inventories to diagnose depression. My therapist insisted I was responding sanely to abnormal conditions. My colleagues told me to pray about it. My health-educator swore by deep breathing in the shower. A friend suggested I focus on the positive. None of this increased my sense of well-being.
Lately, I have more good days, but I don’t know what I healed from or am moving towards. I do know I met a “me” I didn’t know before, filled with dark passions I thought belonged only to other people. Yes, I am a wiser counselor, parent and friend, with greater empathy and tolerance for a range of emotion. Finally, I understand that the whole range can be indicative of inner strength. Suffering and disintegration are part of the speech of the psyche. Sometimes, when we work too hard to hold a fragile self together, we silence that speech. And sometimes the speech will burst through anyway.
Life requires a great deal of strength, including the strength to face our own selves when we seem to lack it. So I have gleaned, as I take account of my strengths during this week of gevurah.
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This week, my partner and I sat down to plan our seder. For us, this involves much more than deciding on the menu. While we use a haggadah that we compiled as a guide to take us through the 15 steps that make up the seder (which means “order”), what we do with those steps varies from year to year.
This year, I was inspired by two wonderful suggestions from our cousin, Ilana Stein Ben-Ze’ev. The first is a beautiful and moving new ritual, shared out of the experience of the death of her father, Professor Jerome Stein. She writes:
We have Eliyahu’s Cup, and Miriam’s Cup, and now, at my home: The Memory Cup. Kos Zikaron. Even though Pesach is ‘Zman Simchatenu’ (A time of our happiness), I knew I would miss my father- his seders were a big part of our family life. I had a friend coming who had also recently lost her father. So, I took one of the many goblets I’ve made over the years, and declared it to be Kos Zikaron. Before we started the seder, we filled it and passed it around the table. Whoever wanted to, announced whose cup it was for them, and why. For me: “This is my father’s cup. I have so many seder memories and he is in them all. I’d like his presence at our seder.” And so it went- I was surprised that everyone found someone to bring in (and glad I didn’t have to feed them all!).
Ilana’s second sharing in inspired by the line with which we begin the Maggid (story-telling) part of the Seder. She writes: Kol dichfin (the line in the Maggid that pronounces – let all who are hungry come and eat!) – let’s put our money where our mouths are: Donate the cost of feeding 1 Seder guest to a food bank.
There are also those who make a habit of donating all of their unopened hametz to a local food bank in advance of Passover. In our congregation, we have reinterpreted the period that begins on the 2nd night of Seder – the counting of the Omer – as a time to donate grain-based foods to the local food bank. Historically, this was when our ancestors gave thanks as the different kinds of grain (barley first, wheat later) became ready for harvesting, and the first sheaves were brought to the temple as an offering to give thanks. During Passover we begin with rice, but once Passover has ended, cereal boxes, cookies, and other non-perishable grain-based foods are donated and publicly displayed as the collection grows, culminating at Shavuot.
The haggadah does not begin with a retelling of the Exodus narrative. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find that narrative laid out in the haggadah. The entire Maggid section is more of a teacher’s guide to the spiritual and practical lessons we can learn from engaging with the story not as re-telling of an historical account, but as a guide to the spiritual landscapes of our own lives and the society and world that we live in today. That is why we are commanded to experience the Exodus “as if we, ourselves” were freed from slavery. That’s not necessarily an instruction to imagine yourself back in time as a character in the story (although that can be fun and insightful too). It is an instruction to look at how those themes of enslavement, constriction, limitation, and of freedom to become, fully, are played out today. One way to more deeply share the meaning of these narratives with the guests at your Seder is by examining these themes through poetry, images, news stories, and personal sharing.
If Pharaoh is the one that limits and controls us, making us a slave to needs that line the pockets of another and constrains us from living expansively, guided by our inner truth and our relationship to the Divine (which, for many, is experienced through our relationship with others), then we can ask what manifests as Pharaoh in our life today?
This year – especially this year – when the weather patterns have left us longing for spring to finally be upon us, we can ask what new seeds are we nurturing, and what might we be hoping to see blossom in our lives in the coming year.
These are just a few ideas to enrich your seder ritual this year. Share your creative rituals with us here, so that we can inspire each other this Passover.
I am a self-confessed football fanatic. From September through January, my Sundays are centered around the performance of the San Diego Chargers (my star-crossed hometown team). The feeling of elation after a victory casts a positive glow throughout much of the following week, while a loss leaves me virtually inconsolable for the rest of the evening. My considerate spouse tends to discourage other non-fanatics from coming over to the house to watch games with me: I have been known to yell somewhat loudly, and I take literally the word “throw” in “throw pillows.”
To others who share this unhealthy obsession with football, the period between the Superbowl in February and the beginning of the season in late summer can feel like an eternity. But there is a spring oasis, a football three-day holiday, that emerges each spring called the NFL Draft. For seven rounds, football teams select college football players to add to their professional ranks for the coming year. Ostensibly, the purpose of the draft is to restock depleted rosters with relatively affordable players. But for football fans, the draft takes on a far more important role: it gives us hope: hope that these 20-22 year-old amateurs will take their physical gifts and become franchise players; hope that your team’s first-round pick this year will become an all-star rather than an expensive bust; hope, in short, of the power of potential to become reality.
Judaism, too, offers a spring-time multi-day exploration of the power of potential. From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, we count off a 49-day period called Sefirat ha-Omer (“Counting of the Omer”). According to Leviticus 23:15-16, “You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer (“sheaf”) of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God.” Despite its agricultural-sacrificial original context, the Counting of the Omer has become a period for spiritual rejuvenation. At a national level, the Omer bridges the gap between Passover’s celebration of freedom from slavery and Shavuot’s formation of Jewish communal identity with the receipt of the Torah. At a personal level, based in part on Kabbalistic (mystical) teachings, the Omer becomes an opportunity for individual spiritual purification from a slavish mentality (to money and materialism, work, preconceived notions, etc.) to one that is open and receptive to the instruction of the Almighty.
The Counting of the Omer has become more popular within Jewish circles, I believe, precisely because it taps into the Western cultural desire we all have—NFL fans and those indifferent to the gridiron—to celebrate potential. Despite the toxic nature of our political discourse, the relentless economic malaise we have experienced since 2008, and the tragic violence that continues to penetrate into our daily lives, we still yearn for hope. We still want to be inspired. So when our political and economic leaders fail us, we find other avenues for satisfying our innate need to find and experience potential. We are riveted by the latest hi-tech gadgets, from iPhones to Google Glass (often waiting in line for hours and paying ridiculous amounts of money) because of what they might enable us to do. We watch The Voice or The Bachelor because we want to be part of the process of “discovering” potential greatness. We live in a culture that venerates youth not only because we are shallow and vain but also because youth epitomizes limitless opportunity. For better or for worse, we are a “stem cell” culture: just as embryonic stem cells have the potential to transform into any other cells in the body as they mature, so too do we seek to recapture that fleeting time and sensation when we had not yet become what we are.
The Omer represents an authentically Jewish way to tap into this innate human need to celebrate potential without the cultural detritus of superficiality. Mindfully using the Sefirat ha-Omer enables us to take part in the excitement, the freshness, and the opportunity to re-claim the potential we still have to reinvent ourselves spiritually, both individually and communally. So I encourage you to take advantage of the time remaining in the Omer this year (we are at 34 days and counting). Visit The Huffington Post’s Omer Liveblog for some incredible visual and poet insights; begin reading or studying some text you have always wanted to but never found the time for; attend a yoga or meditation class for the first time; or just carve out a few minutes each evening to think about how you would like to improve your religious life for the upcoming year. Few of us are blessed with the physical tools to become professional football players, but each of us are blessed with the capacity for spiritual, intellectual, and moral growth. May the Omer remind us that we don’t need to wait to be drafted by others to take hold of our own potential for greatness.
Almost eight years ago, on the evening of April 22nd, after a full day of labor, my husband Rick and I got into the car and drove a mile and a half to Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Noa Tiferet Kobrin-Brody, our first child, would be born less than two hours later. Between the intensity of the contractions, Rick and I observed the beauty of the thinnest possible crescent moon that shone brightly in the deep sky. Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of a new Hebrew month) had just ended, and what we saw on that eventful evening was the first sign of the new moon. We knew it heralded an auspicious new chapter in our lives; but it also stirred a very special memory: Rick’s grandmother, who’s name was Doris, loved the crescent moon — she thought it was one of nature’s greatest beauties. Rick’s family had in fact named it a “mommy–moon” in honor of Doris.
Rick and I had been “old-school” and did not know, prior to Noa’s birth, if our baby was a boy or a girl. We had thought, if she was a girl, that we would name her Noa, after Rick’s grandfather, Nathaniel. We wanted to remember Rick’s grandmother through our child’s middle name, but we were struggling to find a suitable girl’s name that honored Doris. The crescent moon changed that. On that night in April, the crescent moon — the mommy-moon — actually had a Jewish name: Tiferet she’b’Tiferet.
Each spring, we Jews have the opportunity to usher progressively more holiness into our lives through the sacred act of counting the Omer. The 49 days between the first day of Passover and the first day of Shavuot provide a perfect square in time — seven weeks of seven days; each one gets counted as a critical step in reenacting the transformative journey from the Egyptian Exodus to the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. The mystics understood this s’firah — this period of counting — as an opportunity to contemplate 49 different combinations of 7 fundamental Divine qualities, or s’firot. Each week has one of these divine qualities connected to it, and so does each day of the week. This means that each day is a unique pairing from these 7 s’firot — the 4th day of the 2nd week, the 5th day of the 7th week, etc. Each pairing suggests a certain way of being in the world and of experiencing reality. Once each week, the same s’firah appears twice — the same number day within the same number week. This alignment offers double the power for actualizing that one quality.
Noa Tiferet was born on the 17th day of the Omer, the 3rd day of the 3rd week, Tiferet she’b’Tiferet — the day of beauty within the week of beauty. One of the beauties of the Jewish calendar is its lunar consistency, meaning that the 17th day of the Omer, Tiferet she’b’Tiferet, always falls at the first appearance of the thinnest crescent moon after Passover. Each year on Noa Tiferet’s Hebrew birthday, as we count the Omer and look up into the sky, we are greeted by that beautiful crescent shining down on us. And each year, we remember Doris Sack, a woman who lived to the full age of 93, and taught us to appreciate all of life’s beauties, especially the subtle and delicate crescent moon.
We often flow unaware from one moment on the calendar to the next. There are too many times where we fail to remember what we did last month, last week or even yesterday. There are too many times where the year breezes past us and before we know it, we are another year older. This pattern and this way of being is sharply interrupted by the ritual known as the Sefirat HaOmer, the Counting of the Omer. In Biblical times the Omer was a grain offering brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and since then has transformed into a ritual with rhythm and movement all of its own.
Each night people from every corner of the globe count how many nights have elapsed from the second night of Passover until the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the Revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every night adds from the night before, slowly building and rising in anticipation and progression towards Shavuot. This ritual concretely and conceptually links the holiday of Passover to the holiday of Shavuot. It makes a profound statement about the nature of the freedom won in Egypt by the ancient Israelites. It sets out to define the very state of what it means to be free.
If the Exodus from Egypt was an unshackling of the physical bonds that held the people of Israel to servitude and bondage then the Revelation at Sinai was the unshackling of the emotional, psychological and spiritual bonds that kept the people in an oppression of the soul and the heart. The 18th century Italian mystic and philosopher Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto underscored this when he commented that the reason Pharaoh increased the physical labor of the Israelites after Moses made his first plea for their release was to further suppress their spirit because the fatigue and tiredness of the body destroys the aspirations of the spirit.
This is the intention behind the count between Passover and Shavuot. The Talmudic rabbis teach that every person in each generation is obligated to see himself or herself as having left the servitude of Egypt and an intrinsic part of that process is the progressive march from the experience of physical freedom to a fuller freedom encompassing not just body but spirit as well. The rituals of the Passover seder help us reconnect into the experience of the Exodus and the deeply important ritual of the Omer help us walk and move through our own deserts towards a life of whole and total freedom.
The Omer brings us to a stop and to reflect that every day and every moment count. Every day is a unique and precious opportunity to walk the journey towards a freedom of purpose and a freedom of dignity.