A few weeks ago I was talking about the Omer journey with my Journey Into Judaism class. Counting the Omer, you may remember, is this practice we do during the 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation. Each week is linked with a different quality — lovingkindness, boundaries and strength, harmony and balance, endurance, humble splendor, roots and generations, and the ineffable quality we call Shechinah: presence, in the sense of Divine Presence.
Each week, and each day within each week, is mapped to one of these qualities. This seven-week journey of counting gives us the opportunity to reflect on these qualities as they manifest in us. We get to ask ourselves: how do I express chesed, lovingkindness? How do I receive lovingkindness? What kind of repair do I need to do in my capacity to give or receive love?
And how do I express gevurah, boundaries and strength? Do I need stronger boundaries between myself and toxic people or institutions in my life? Or do I need more permeable boundaries so that my relationships have better give-and-take? What kind of repair work do I need to do in my boundaries and my strength? And so on.
In my class that day, someone noted that this sounds an awful lot like the inner work of teshuvah — returning again, turning ourselves around, the work of discernment and repair in our relationship with self and God and others — that we do in the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe. And I said: yes indeed! During the Omer, we’re doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to receive Torah anew at Sinai on Shavuot. During the weeks leading up to the Days of Awe, we’re doing our inner work in order to prepare ourselves to be ready to enter into a new year and to stand before God on Yom Kippur.
The two journeys are parallel. And this week’s Torah portion offers a couple of connections between this journey in the spring and that journey in the fall. (This week, following Reform practice, we’re reading from the first half of Acharei Mot.)
One piece of today’s Torah portion tells the story of the scapegoat ritual, which is also read in many synagogues on Yom Kippur. Torah tells us to take two goats, draw lots and offer one goat up to God, and then symbolically confer the sins of the community onto the other goat and then send it into the wilderness. It was a way of cleansing the community of its missteps and misdeeds so they could have a clean slate and begin again.
And if that weren’t enough of a link between this season and the fall holidays, then the Torah actually mentions Yom Kippur:
וְהָיְתָ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם לְחֻקַּ֣ת עוֹלָ֑ם בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הַ֠שְּׁבִיעִי בֶּֽעָשׂ֨וֹר לַחֹ֜דֶשׁ תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם וְכָל־מְלָאכָה֙ לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֔וּ הָֽאֶזְרָ֔ח וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַגָּ֥ר בְּתוֹכְכֶֽם׃
And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.
כִּֽי־בַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֛ה יְכַפֵּ֥ר עֲלֵיכֶ֖ם לְטַהֵ֣ר אֶתְכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ חַטֹּ֣אתֵיכֶ֔ם לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָ֖ה תִּטְהָֽרוּ׃
For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the LORD.
Sefaria translates it as, on the tenth day of the seventh month which is Tishri, we practice self-denial (many translations say “afflict our souls”), and abstain from work, and atonement is made for us. But my friend and hevruta Rabbi David Markus notes that a different reading can be offered here: t’anu et nafshoteichem can be read either as “afflict your souls,” or as “answer with your souls.” (The only difference in the two words is in the vowels, which are not written in the Torah scroll.)
How different that verse feels to me when it’s an instruction not to afflict our souls, but to answer for them — to take a reckoning of who we are and who we want to be; to seek to reconnect ourselves with what matters most; to cultivate and strengthen our good qualities and seek to shed our bad ones, so that we can live out the fullest expression of who we’re meant to be in the world! (Rabbi David has written a beautiful d’var Torah exploring this teaching for AJR, and it’s now online here.).)
Answering for our souls is the work of Yom Kippur. And it’s the work of the Omer count too. Each day is an invitation to pause and notice where we are in time, and an invitation to pause and notice who we are and how we are and what spiritual muscles we need to strengthen.
Because taking a good hard look at my relationship with love and boundaries and my own strength and my sense of balance and my perseverance and my humility and my willingness to shine and my willingness to really be present — that is not a onetime task. And taking a good hard look at my habits and my practices and my excuses and the places where I let myself off the hook but shouldn’t — and the places where I don’t let myself off the hook but should! — that’s not a onetime task either.
This is the work of spiritual life. Discerning who we aspire to be. Answering for our souls, answering to our souls. And then living out our intentions of becoming the people we’re called to become. I think our tradition gives us these two seven-week windows during the year to focus on this stuff because our ancestors were human too. They knew that inner work isn’t one-and-done.
Some of us just went seven days without leaven. And that can feel like an affliction of our souls, or at least an affliction of our bodies! But it doesn’t have to be an affliction, it can be an opportunity. To realign our relationship with food. To realign our relationship with sustenance. To think about the metaphysical hametz of old stories and old hurts that we need to shed in order to be free.
Counting the Omer could feel like an obligation, just one more item to cross off the to-do list every day (or another place to fall short when we inevitably forget.) But it doesn’t have to be. It can be an opportunity.
What would happen if we made space during these seven weeks of the Omer to listen to our souls? I mean — sit still, sit in silence, or sit in prayer, or walk the labyrinth, go running, do yoga, shut off the distractions and the devices — whatever it takes to help us listen to that still small voice, the spark of divinity within?
What spiritual muscles do we need to strengthen in order to do that listening — and what spiritual muscles might our souls ask us to strengthen so that we can receive Torah anew at Sinai this Shavuot as the best versions of ourselves that we can become?
Deep thanks to R’ David Markus for his teaching on תְּעַנּ֣וּ אֶת־נַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶ֗ם. This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI this morning, cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.