Parashat Emor

Leviticus 21:1–24:23

May 7, 2011 / 3 Iyyar 5771

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Andy Shugerman, rabbinic fellow, Development Department, JTS.

Late this past Sunday night, Erev Yom HaSho'ah (the Eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day), I heard the news that Osama bin Laden was dead, that the most infamous nemesis of the United States since Hitler and Stalin had been killed in an American military operation to capture him. While watching the television reports of celebrations outside the White House and near Ground Zero, I felt mixed emotions: relief for the end of the manhunt; elation over the retribution for innocent lives lost; and discomfort with my pride in the violent end of another human life, even one as murderous as this adversary's was.

Naturally, I next turned to Facebook, my generation's greatest venue for collectively sharing such historic moments, and found some solace there in the wisdom of several former JTS classmates' messages quoting Scripture: "If your enemy falls, do not exult; if he trips, let your heart not rejoice . . . " (Prov. 24:17). My rabbinic colleagues pointed to this verse's admonition not to take pleasure in a foe's demise as a curb on our base inclinations, in this case the desire to cheer along with the crowds. Nonetheless, I wished to find further guidance for how we as a faith community might respond not just soberly but more proactively, how we might bring more life-affirming energy to the world in direct contrast to Al Qaeda's destructive nihilism.

After absorbing more fully the impact of these events, let us consider anew our observance this season of Sefirat Ha'omer ("the Counting of the 'Omer") in connection with its origin in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Emor. In the middle of that Sedra, Leviticus 23 presents a priestly version of the biblical calendar of holy days, including special attention to our current interval between Passover and Shavu'ot. Verses 9 to 14 describe the ancient 'Omer offering ceremony, while verses 15 and 16 explain that a calculated period of 7 weeks would follow it, with an offering of new grain to take place on the 50th day.

In our time, we take for granted that the daily counting practice of Sefirat Ha'omer no longer involves a passively watched agrarian ritual. Instead of being spectators, now every Jew individually marks each day by its number after first reciting a blessing praising God, the One "who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us" accordingly. This liturgical convention actually represents just one of many rituals that our ancient rabbinic Sages developed from interpreting the Torah in the aftermath of the Jerusalem Temple's destruction two millenia ago. Their innovation would give rise to other customs imbuing Sefirat Ha'omer with deeper meaning, one of which focuses particularly on self-improvement.

After the full flowering of Kabbalah (the Jewish mystical tradition) over a thousand years later, our mystic sages transformed the 49-day ritual into an extended exercise of ethical contemplation and action. The counting of seven weeks came to reflect seven character attributes associated with key divine qualities, each of which we emulate in fulfilling our creation in God's image: Chesed (Love/Grace); Gevurah (Discipline/Rigor); Tiferet (Beauty/Compassion); Netzach (Victory); Hod (Glory); Yesod (Foundation/Righteous Loyalty); and Malkhut (Majesty/Leadership). All seven weeks and all seven days of the week each correspond to a different attribute. This results in a seven-by-seven grid of virtue-pairs, traits we must cultivate in preparation for reliving our ancestors' spiritual elevation as freed slaves receiving the Torah and becoming both "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:6).

To many people unfamiliar with the mystical aspect of Sefirat Ha'omer or with Kabbalah in general, the above description may seem as esoteric as this long-hidden tradition was once meant to be. After all, this theology requires embracing the apparent paradox that our One God has many faces, and this complexity often confounds rather than consoles. For me, the language of Kabbalah and its application to Sefirat Ha'omer represent a spiritual map of reality that provides a useful basis for speaking about and drawing upon God's limitlessness in my very limited state of being. This map informs me of the literal and figurative territory where I find myself, just as it guides me toward actualizing my highest self, not my basest desires, to become more fully God's partner in Creation.

From that perspective, this ethical-mystical practice for refining our souls and our behavior presents us with a unique opportunity to strive for greater balance in the week following the dramatic news from Pakistan. From Tuesday night through the following Wednesday (May 3 until the evening of May 11), our 'Omer-counting will take us through the week of Tiferet, the divine aspect of beauty. This attribute also connotes compassion and the balance between unconditional love (Chesed) and the rigorous commitment of discipline (Gevurah), which I like to call "tough love." Each day offers a different opportunity to reflect upon and to seek this kind of emotional equilibrium as our spiritual homework.

To extend that educational metaphor, what might a successful week focused on the beauty of compassion entail? Beyond our own personal inner work, I believe a Jewish community concentrating on Tiferet would honor the understandably conflicting emotions arising from our sworn enemy's death. Without celebrating, we can let those late-night crowds' youthful exuberance resound within us as an expression of gratitude for justice and security. Without mourning, we can honor those who tragically perished and the sense of loss that their loved ones continue to feel in their absence. Without succumbing to new fears, we can remind ourselves and our leaders that we must remain vigilant to future threats while maintaining support for the vital aspirations of young Arabs and Muslims who yearn in their countries for the liberties and rights that we so blessedly enjoy.

In this coming week and through the final four weeks of Sefirat Ha'omer, I pray that we can bring more beauty and compassion to our inner lives and to all those we encounter along the way. If we can achieve even part of that goal, we will have attained new insight into the sparks in our souls and in our Torah. That is the kind of new offering that can bring us nearer to God come Shavu'ot.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.