There’s been some pretty intense facial hair around the ISJL office lately. If you stopped by in May, you might exclaim: “What’s with the beards?!”
See, during the counting of the Omer, Rabbi Matt Dreffin, Lex Rofes, and Dan Ring decided to ignore the Southern humidity and grow out their beards for some very Jewish reasons.
Read below to find out why each of them finds this practice meaningful!
Why is counting the omer meaningful for me? Of all Jewish commandments, it simply lasts the longest. Jewish holidays almost never last longer than seven or eight days, and even the month of Elul, another spiritually rich period, is only 29 days. The Omer? 49 days of counting, contemplating, and for me – beard-growing.
Now, some might argue that doing something 49 times does not automatically imbue that action with meaning. But with the Omer, we have spiritual practices to help us with that. The physical presence of a beard on my face reminds me, with every last itch, that I am in the midst of a special time of year. The application of s’firot – attributes of God – to each of the 49 days, creates a powerful sense of uniqueness in every day.
Most importantly for me, the Omer creates an incredible feeling of anticipation for Shavuot. When that day, which I will have been anticipating for almost two months, finally arrives, I will feel as if I have earned that holiday. The Torah that I receive is not something I am merely given. It’s something I achieve.
I’ll be honest – I’ve had a short beard for the past year or so. I really enjoy having a beard, seeing how wild and unruly it can get before I feel the need to clean it up. Thus, for me, growing a beard for the Omer is great fun. It’s also quite meaningful. Within the context of the Omer, growing a long beard helps me connect to my Jewish past and present. When I look in the mirror, I can’t help but think about my male ancestors, their beards, and their bearded journeys that made it possible for me to be here today. No matter how different their lives and experiences might have been from my own, I’m pretty sure their beards looked quite similar to mine!
As my beard gets longer and longer, I realize that it becomes out of the ordinary; it stands out. I can’t just be one of those normal folks walking down the street. Instead, I become the guy with the unruly beard. I’m forced to realize what it’s like to be someone who can’t hide their differences. It helps me to obtain even a quick and cursory glance into what’s like to be “the other.” As American Jews, we can easily blend in. We can forget what it’s like be separate and what it’s like to stand out. It becomes easy to forget our Jewish (and human) responsibility to the world – our responsibility to be the best people we can be, and to treat people with respect and dignity no matter who they are or what they look like. My omer beard helps me to reconnect and rededicate myself to our sacred collective responsibility.
And did I mention it’s fun too?
With most Jewish rituals, I strive to see them each time in a new light. Ever since coming across a Tobi Kahn sculpture that focused on “Omer Counters,” I’ve been highly focused on finding unique ways of commemorating the season. Last year I made sure to follow the daily GIF on a Tumblr that used The Wire’s character, Omar, to notch each day that passed. This year, being so focused on preparing for our ISJL annual Passover Pilgrimage, I didn’t feel I had time to properly search out a new avenue to bring this piece of Judaism into my spiritual practice.
So, whilst driving to my first destination for my first seder, a quote from Ecclesiastes sprung to mind. “That which was is that which will be.” (Eccl 1:9) In other words, what “traditional” practice(s) had I not yet incorporated into my observance of the Omer? I rubbed the top of my head, still freshly shorn from 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, and it occurred to me: I had never grown out my beard! (Coincidentally, I forgot to pack any sort of razor or shaving cream).
What grew out of this practice was a lot more than just my beard. I found it reflected the experience we anticipate in a great way. As the beard lengthened, it became thicker, warmer, oppressive. We yearn toward the day when we will be able to cut it, just like we yearn to be at the end of the omer receiving the Torah on Shavuot. I also found that I was touching the growth around my mouth, the lengths of the mustache impeding everything. It made me think of all the ways we talk about the word of Torah being on our lips, the importance of our mouths to our Religion. While I’m glad to bid my beard bye-bye, the practice this year has been so fulfilling, I decided that instead of saying “shalom” (goodbye), I would say, “l’hit’ra-ot” (see you later) to my scruff.
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The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?