Counting the Omer: From Self to Soul

passing throughFor our 9th day of counting the omer, and our week focused on givurah, “strength,” we turn to the inspiring words that Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell delivered this Shabbat, when we marked her retirement from the Union for Reform Judaism.

“From Self to Soul: Passover, Passages, Passing through, and Counting”

We are here tonight, this Friday, April 18th, 18 Nisan 5774. On Monday night, many of us gathered around seder tables, and, with others, we engaged in a very ancient ritual of remembering and recounting stories from our past, both our collective past and some of our own journeys. We retold how the passages of our lives have shaped us, burnished us, formed us.

Our Passover became a sharing of passages.

We’re here tonight to mark another passage: our passage through a unique time of year, the counting of the Omer. Our ancestors’ days were ordered by the weather, by the seasons, and by the earth’s cycles. Those who came before us numbered each day between the barley harvest and the wheat harvest. They welcomed spring by bringing the first sheaves of barley to Jerusalem as an offering, a gift of gratitude to the Holy One for producing food that nourishes and sustains our bodies. Like many Jewish practices rooted in agricultural beginnings, the counting of the Omer acquired an historical interpretation, numbering the fifty days between Erev Pesach, the fifteenth of Nisan and Erev Shavuot, the 5th of Sivan, marking our journey from the suffocating servitude of Egypt to the endless sands and towering heights of Sinai, from slavery to revelation.

We twenty-first century American Jews must stretch to recall—or imagine—the realities of our ancestors: ancient Near Eastern farmers, Babylonian scribes, European merchants, shtetl traders, immigrants to this new land. Our lives are rich in many ways. But many of us have lost our connection to nature’s renewal, both the daily miracle of dawn, and then, dusk, and the amazing and so welcome change of seasons. And many of us have neglected the celebrations of the Jewish year that have the power to enrich our lives. Ashreinu—how blessed are we that this time of counting the Omer welcomes us into a time of paying attention that can bring us home: home to our roots, home to our present, home to our future.

On Monday night, we celebrated our passage from slavery to freedom, with foods sweet and bitter, with songs old and new. We journeyed from isolation to connection, and together, found a path through the haggadah, concluding with “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

Tonight, let’s claim Jerusalem as Ir-Shalem, the city of wholeness. The closing words of the seder point us to the possibility of a wholeness that we strive for not only once a year, but every week. We have gathered here tonight on Shabbat, our weekly taste of wholeness, our weekly glimpse of Olam haBa, the world as it can be, when we cease striving, when we delight in what is.

On this first Shabbat of the Omer, let us reclaim the preciousness of time. Let us delight in counting each day. The psalmist teaches:

לִמְנוֹת יָמֵינוּ כֵּן הוֹדַע וְנָבִא לְבַב חָכְמָֽה:

Teach us to number our days that we may acquire a wise heart.

The psalmist challenges us: pay attention to each day!

Since last fall, I have been studying Mussar. Mussar is a system of character development that, if diligently practiced, can lead to an ethical life. Rabbi Ira Stone, our colleague at Beth Zion Beth Israel on Lombard Street teaches Mussar as developed by the eighteenth century Italian philosopher, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Ramchal. Rabbi Stone teaches the slow but steady growth that can happen if we “wake up,” and pay close attention to our interactions with others, to the way we speak, to the encounters that make up our daily lives. With practice, we can move from self to soul, from paying attention to our selves to caring for the wellbeing of an other, from focus only on the self to a compassionate welcome to a companion, a friend, a fellow traveler.

Just as we dress ourselves with care when we prepare to attend a special event, we can ready our souls presence. Each week, Shabbat invites us to shake off the soil of the week and to arrive with a shiny soul.  As I look out at your faces tonight, I see luminous souls, ready to greet one another, ready to open to the delight of Shabbat.

On this Shabbat during Passover, I invite you to join me in thinking about the passage of time, and the passage of souls. And I want to share with you a song that has stayed with me since I first heard it as a young teenager. It’s called “Passing Through.” The song was written by Dick Blakeslee, but most of us associate it with our beloved folksong hero, Pete Seeger, who died this year.  Can you hear his gravely, distinctive voice singing, “Passing through, passing through, sometimes happy, sometimes blue, glad that I ran into you…tell the people that you saw me passing through.” We are the people who were passed over by the angel of death. What is our responsibility as survivors? For 5 thousand years we have continued to teach that each of us must see ourselves as if we, ourselves, came out of slavery, as if we, ourselves, came through that narrow place. With freedom comes responsibility. At our best, we are the people of response. Passed over, we now see that “passing through, sometimes happy, sometimes blue,” means that regardless of the condition of the self, we must awaken the soul.  Our Judaism encourages us to explore the gladness that comes from encountering the other. Our lives are impoverished when we remain narrow selves. When we open ourselves and engage with, reach out to, and partner with others, we become souls. Our gladness becomes a deep, nourishing joy. “Glad that I ran into you.”

When our ancestor Jacob, all but consumed by fear, encountered his estranged brother Esau, the two men “burst into tears.” Jacob composed himself and looked his brother in the eyes. His words have reverberated through the centuries. As he took in the countenance of his twin, he uttered this words. “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen 33:4-10).

Jacob’s self melted away and the voice of his soul spoke to his brother. With the eyes of his heart, he saw the face he had so longed to see. The two men’s souls met, and embraced, and wept.

What do we see when we look at another? On this Shabbat eve, can we set down the cares of the week?  Can we slough off the protective layers of self and let our souls shine? Can we welcome ourselves to this time and place? And once we are fully here, can we acknowledge the deep gladness of welcoming one another? Soul to soul?  For in seeing one another, we are seeing the face of God.

So, my brothers and sister, we who are passing through, let us count this day. When we count each day during the Omer, we may remember to make each day count. On this Shabbat of passages, let us complete the prayer that reminds us that we who pass through must celebrate with wise hearts.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל סְפִירַת הָעֹֽמֶר.

הַיּוֹם אַרְבָּעָה יָמִים לָעֹֽמֶר

We Praise you, Adonai, Our God, Sovereign of the World. You have given us opportunities for holiness, tools to sanctify our lives. And now we count the Omer.

Today is the fourth day of the counting of the Omer.

May your soul shine on this day of counting. May this counting enrich your life and sweeten each of your days with wisdom.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

[1] With deep appreciation to my colleagues Yael Levy and Karyn Kedar for their work on the Omer as a door to daily spiritual practice. See Levy’s Journey Through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer (Philadelphia: A Way In, 2012)and Kedar’s Omer: A Counting (NY: CCAR, 2014).


Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha-olam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al s’firat ha’omer.  Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, who makes us holy with sacred actions and enjoins us to count the omer.

Hayom tisha yamim, shehem shavuah echad ushnei yamim la-omer.  Today is 9 days, which are one week and 2 days of the Omer.

Here’s to meaningful passages–Your RS Clergy