Going through a break up can be one of the most difficult things to endure. A break or a separation in what felt like a divine union. What feels like a heart shattered into a million pieces. But we have to find a way to trust that it is for our own good and what’s truly aligned will arise at the right time. We have to shift our focus from what’s lost and lean into faith that whatever is meant to be will be. We never know what our Creator has in store for us.
All of life in various ways, even if we don’t fully feel it, is an element of heartbreak, since at all times we are somewhat separate from the Shechinah (Divine Presence). How to elevate in exile is a part of the process of Sefirot HaOmer, rectifying each level of the seven sefirot of חסד, Chesed (loving-kindness) through מלכות, Malchut (sovereignty, leadership).
The Process of a Pure Personality
We learn that “the Jews in Egypt were on the 49th level of impurity,” a step away from the bottom, the 50th level of impurity (tied to our animalistic soul and selves).1 As everything has a balance and every potential for bad has the potential for good, we also learn that in these 49 days, B’nei Yisrael reached the very highest level: “the Jews were on the 49th level of holiness (tied to our Godly selves and souls) when they received the Torah,” one step away from the highest level, the 50th gate/level of holiness, which was the revelation at Sinai.2
We are now in the midst of counting the forty nine days of Sefirat Omer, from the second night of Pesach until Shavuot. The Omer is also referred to as Seven Shabbatot. And, as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov says, we do it “Peh Sach,” meaning with an “open mouth.” We are speaking spirituality into existence, mirroring the journey of B’nei Yisrael in the desert, who spent these forty nine days in spiritual preparation.
With each day and week in these seven weeks, we are tasked with transcending our physical constraints and reaching redemption. Time is a figment of a fractured world, but it is the world we live in, and to remove the layers of klipah (the “shells” of everything around us that conceal Godly light), we need to go through the process of these seven weeks of counting, of meditation, of moving through seven Shabbatot until reaching the 50th day, when we receive the Torah anew.
Sefirat HaOmer is a journey in refining the seven emotional attributes outlined in the ten sefirot: חסד, Chesed (Loving-kindness); גבורה, Gevurah (Justice, Strength, Discipline); תפארת, Tiferet (Beauty, Harmony, Compassion); נצח, Netzach (Endurance, Victory); הוד, Hod (Humility, Empathy); יסוד, Yesod, (Bonding, Foundation); and מלכות, Malchut, (Sovereignty, Leadership).
The root of any of our own enslavement is the negative side— or distorted use— of these emotions. The seven weeks of seven days counting and moving through these emotions are meant as a time to reflect, be mindful and try to be in tune with the emotions in a healthy way and remove any dissonance clouding clarity of love. The distortion of an emotion is when it is not used for ultimate good, and since emotions are multidimensional, each of the seven attributes are composed of all seven. as such:
Day One: Chesed of Chesed
Day Two: Gevurah of Chesed
Day Three: Tiferet of Chesed
Day Four: Netzach of Chesed
Day Five: Hod of Chesed
Day Six: Yesod of Chesed
Day Seven: Malchut of Chesed
And this continues on Day One of Week 2: Chesed of Gevurah, and so on. To fully refine any one emotion, which would in theory take seven days, instead we count seven cycles of seven days.
In this time, we try to transcend our limited view of our physical reality and tap into our spirit that’s beyond these constraints. We say the bracha (blessing) and speak the cycle into existence with kavanah (heartfelt intention). The Talmud teaches: “A person’s prayer is not heard on high unless he places his soul in his hands.”3 This is a time to tap into transcendence. The klipot that manifest all around us represent the external, mirroring the negativity or egocentricity that keeps us from connecting to the internal and our true selves as creations with a Divine purpose, which connects us to the Divine light. It is the concealment that allows free will. It is the truth that is hidden that we have to fight to remain in to continue to do good and feel oneness. This negativity or ego is like the shell of a fruit: it does serve to protect the fruit, just as there are times it is useful for our own self-preservation, but it, too, must be removed to get to the sweetness. Focusing on the shell while ignoring its core will deceive us every time, leaving us holding the peel instead of its precious fruit. We have to remove our layers of ego and negativity to get to the root of our being and purpose, to get to a redemptive state and to receive the Torah.
Just last week, as I contemplated klipah as a concept and how it plays a part in our own lives, I wrote down a poem that went something like this:
this shell covering your magic
if you can only see what I
full of life that can’t survive up here
the inside of you under layers of fear
one in your mind
your outside is created
dig deeper to
sweet and pure as a fruit
but your shell has toughened
peel it all away
until you see
it was all a trick you played.4
Sefirat HaOmer is an opportunity for us to peel away the layers of the shell and move toward our inner essence, connecting to our Godly soul, instead of limiting our perceptions and actions to our Animal soul.
Moshe took B’nei Israel from Mitzrayim (מִצְרָיִם, Egypt), out of Meitzar (מֵיצָר, a narrow constricted place), the definition of exile– spiritual narrowness and constrictions (tzimtzumim). He brought them to the border of the Promised Land. His purpose was fulfilled, and it’s now our task to leave our own Mitzrayim, our own constrictions and enslavements, that which holds us back from reaching our potential and ascending to our personal Promised Lands. To bring on Moshiach, we have to make a redemption that is prati (private/personal) before we can see the final redemption that is klali (public/communal). It is on all of us, which is why in the pasuk commanding the counting, it is written, “yourselves.” As is stressed in the Talmud, “each individual should count.”5
You shall count seven full weeks for yourselves, from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering. Count fifty days, until the day following the seventh week.6
‘Shabbat’ in Hebrew is etymologically related to the word lishbot, which means “to rest.” Hashem commands us to rest in order to rise. If we hope to rise above nature and elevate our spirit, we have to rest from trying continuously to control the physical world. If we want to transcend and connect to our soul over our body, we have to pause our pursuits and connect to our purpose. Sefira is a count and practice of being mindful of the time around the seven opportunities (Shabbatot) to do exactly that, in hopes of doing our part from below, transcending the animalistic aspects of ourselves and connecting to the Divine within us, peeling away the layers of klipah so that Hashem answers from above on the 50th day with our key to redemption, the Torah.
A Festivus for the rest of us!
In these parshiot, the word Shabbat in relation to the festivals is recurring, but as we know, the Festivals are less strict than Shabbat. No work may be done on Shabbat, but one is allowed to prepare food on the Festivals. The ramifications of not observing Shabbat are far greater than those for not observing a Festival. But, because the Festivals are also referred to as ‘Shabbat’, the potential for spiritual connection and unification is beyond measure, because of the special space these days hold in time, their separation from elements of space and creation itself.
You have probably gotten a sense reading these divrei Torah how much I love Shabbat. Just feeling connected to Hashem, disconnecting from the everyday world, meditating on having been created– it’s an incredible, ineffable feeling. In this parashah of Emor, Hashem gives us the commandment of Shabbat and of the Festivals, which are also referred to as Shabbat, “a holy occasion… a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.”7 We are commanded to join in a Shabbat to Hashem. So, what’s it all about?
We learn from Hashem that words create worlds. In the beginning, Hashem spoke existence into being. Tefillah, prayer, is our daily method of emulating Hashem, speaking spirituality into reality. But on Shabbat and the Festivals, we can focus on just that, without the constant distractions pulling us away from this unification. It’s taught that on Shabbat we gain an neshama yetera (additional soul), and that this extra neshama allows a person to understand the mysteries of the Torah, so their tefillot (prayers) and learning are elevated.
The Restoration of Our Spiritual Selves
The Kabbalah teaches us about Five Worlds, which are a model for living a whole and balanced life, experiencing harmony between the body, mind, heart, and spirit:
Adam Kadmon (Primordial Man) – Will, Luminous Light
Atzilut (Emanation) – Mind, Spirit, Soul
Beriyah (Creation) – Thought, Intellect
Yetzirah (Formation) – Heart, Feelings, Speech
Asiyah (Action) – Body, Physicality
The Hebrew word for universe is Olam/עולם and is derived from the same root Alam/עלם, which means to be concealed.8 This is to hint that Hashem, who is King of the Universe, has hidden himself in the universe. These worlds above act as “garments” for Hashem’s light.9 As King David sings of creation in Tehillim, “You have dressed Yourself in majesty and splendor; You have covered Yourself with light like a garment.”10
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan teaches: “The five universes are often explained in terms of their parallels at the human level. Man’s innermost will and volition correspond to the universe of Adam Kadmon. The level of preconception or undifferentiated mind corresponds to Atzilut. The process of thought corresponds to the universe of Beriyah. Speech and communication parallel the universe of Yetzirah and, finally, action corresponds to Asiyah.11
Rabbi Shalom Sharabi points out that on Shabbat, the world of Atzilut (Emanation) shines into the world of Beriyah (Creation), meaning that the intellect is imbued with Divine consciousness that transcends intellect. So, when we study Torah on Shabbat, we can actually sense God’s presence in it.12
I think Abraham Joshua Heschel articulates the power and feeling of Shabbat best many times in his book, The Sabbath, but one particular passage that jumps out to me is this:
All days of the week must be spiritually consistent with the Day of Days. All our life should be a pilgrimage to the seventh day; the thought and appreciation of what this day may bring to us should be ever present in our minds. For the Sabbath is the counterpoint of living; the melody sustained throughout all agitations and vicissitudes which menace our conscience; our awareness of God’s presence in the world.13
Rambam and Ibn Ezra point out that the word ‘Shabbat’ is used to describe a full week and not just Shabbat itself14 In Vayikra, the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot as Shabbaton and as Shabbat Shabbaton (a grand Shabbat).15
So we see that Shabbat and its power for connection and unification is constantly commanded to us. In this Parashah, Hashem tells Moshe to speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, “Hashem’s appointed Festivals, which you shall designate as callings of holiness– these are My appointed Festivals.”16 The entire Torah is callings of holiness, occasions to access what I like to call the “Cheat Codes to Holiness”.
We have previously learned about making time itself holy by partnering with Hashem in observing Shabbat. This week, we learn how to designate time and space as holy outside of Shabbat as well:
שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֘ תֵּֽעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֤ת שַׁבָּתוֹן֙ מִקְרָא־קֹ֔דֶשׁ כָּל־מְלָאכָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַֽעֲשׂ֑וּ שַׁבָּ֥ת הִוא֙ לַֽיהֹוָ֔ה בְּכֹ֖ל מֽוֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶֽם
[For] six days, work may be performed, but on the seventh day, it is a complete rest day, a holy occasion; you shall not perform any work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.17
אֵ֚לֶּה מֽוֹעֲדֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה מִקְרָאֵ֖י קֹ֑דֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־תִּקְרְא֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם בְּמֽוֹעֲדָֽם
These are the Lord’s appointed [holy days], holy occasions, which you shall designate in their appointed time.18
These two sentences in Emor demonstrate the interrelationship between the finite and the infinite in such a perfect way. First, we are reminded that Shabbat’s designation of time is from Hashem and remains consistent– a taste of the infinite given to us in our physical dwelling in time and space, on the 7th day of each week. The Sages call Shabbat 1/60th of the World To Come. Then, we are introduced to the Festivals (the High Holidays), which act like a Shabbat for Hashem, and we are tasked with designating the proper time for these holy encounters with Hashem.
This power that we are imbued with to sanctify time is made even clearer when we think about how those times are designated. The dates of the Festivals are always correlated with the new moon (Rosh Chodesh). Rosh Chodesh is determined by the Rabbinical court in Jerusalem when two witnesses see a sliver of the moon, come before the court, and say, “Mekudash, Mekudash” (“sanctified, sanctified”)19 Then, as a community, we give thanks for the reappearance of the moon by reciting the Kiddush Halevanah (Sanctification of the Moon) blessings. So, these rituals that are grounded in our physical experience literally determine when Hashem’s Festivals will happen.
This restoration of our spiritual selves is also central to the rituals of the Festivals. The High Holiday Festivals fall on either the 30th or 31st day from the previous new moon. So, the exact timing is determined by us as part of the living Torah, unlike Shabbat, which has been set since the beginning and will be consistent until the days of kulo Shabbat (entirely Shabbat). Our Sages refer to that time as the Messianic era, when darkness will fully be transformed to light.
Rashi points out that the commandment for Festivals immediately follows a reminder and repetition of the holiness of resting. It’s taught that whoever profanes the Festivals by working on them is considered as though he profaned Shabbat, and whoever observes the Festivals by “resting” on them is considered as though he observed Shabbat.
An Eternal Truth
It’s interesting that in this Parashah, as is the case in the rest of the Torah, the Festival of Shavuot is not referred to as the time when we receive the Torah. We know that Shavuot correlates with the revelation at Sinai only from our oral tradition (Torah Sheba’al Peh). Akeidah gives two important perspectives on why this is the case. The first is seen in the fact that the existence of Hashem isn’t mentioned in the 613 mitzvot, because had there been no Hashem to command them, there would be no reason to observe them. It’s a given that they come from Hashem. The same applies to the giving and receiving of the Torah: the Torah is the first fundamental of Judaism, and the very fact that thousands of years later we observe it means it is a given that it was received. So, the Torah doesn’t need to remind us. Furthermore, the receiving of the Torah doesn’t depend on time, unlike other mitzvot. The Torah is, in fact, received at all times, as it’s written, “This book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth; and you shall meditate on it day and night.”20
In the Torah and this parashah, Shavuot is called the holiday of first fruits and the wheat harvest. It is designated as a thanksgiving to the Creator who gives food to all. We see this in the following pesukim (verses), “And the feast of harvest, the first fruits of your labors, which you have sown in the field: and the feast of ingathering… when you have gathered in your labors out of the field”;21 “And you shall observe the feast of weeks, of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering”;22 “Seven weeks shall you number unto you: Begin to number of the seven weeks from such time as you begin to put the sickle to the wheat.”23 We do receive the Torah on this day in cyclical time, but The Abarbanel sees this as coincidental to the Festival, as the Torah itself is its own daily and perpetual remembrance. R’ David Zvi Hoffman says that it is not written that Shavuot is the time of receiving the Torah, because the vision of Sinai cannot be made into a concrete symbol.
The interplay between nature, creation, and spirituality is the constant dance of these parashiot and something we all struggle to find grace in. The Abarbanel illustrates the mindful symbolism of these Festivals: at Pesach, we are commanded to bring the Omer of barley, a grain normally used as animal fodder, which represents where we were as a people at Pesach— we hadn’t yet received the Torah and were still trapped in the finite, animalistic ways of Egypt; on Shavuot, we are commanded to bring a minchah chaddash (new crop) symbolizing the new spirit that Hashem infused in us by giving us the Torah. And the counting of the Omer that we’re doing between these two offerings is symbolic of our longing to achieve the clarity and connectedness with the Infinite, to not be stuck in nature and a place of finitude.
Shabbat and the Festivals are moments in time to separate oneself from trying to conquer nature and tap into becoming supernatural. These are the moments that concealment is peeled back just a sliver affording us the opportunity to unify with Hashem, who is beyond space, time, and creation itself. Our character is weighed down by the harsh realities and klipot in this natural world. It is by virtue of these seven cycles of seven and the ritual of Sefirat HaOmer that we go through the process of refining our own character that brings us closer to the 50th gate of holiness. 50 being the number and notion that surpasses the natural world. The 49 days of our working through the constrictions of our Animal soul to connect to our Godly soul and the Infinite Light brings the redemptive Divine Light itself.
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Notes & Sources
- Zohar Hachadash, Yitro 31a; Ohr Hachayim, Shemot 3:8
- Ohr Hachayim, Shemot 3:8
- Talmud Taanit 8a
- Poem by Erez Safar
- Talmud Menachot 65b
- Leviticus 23:15-16
- Ibid 23:3
- Tikuney Zohar 42 (82a)
- Zohar 1:20a; Etz Chaim 1:4; Nefesh HaChaim 1:5; Tanya 51
- Psalms 104:3-4
- R’ Aryeh Kaplan, “Inner Space”, p. 21-22
- R. Wisnefsky
- The Sabbath, by Abraham Joshua Heschel
- II Melachim 7:9 & II Devrei HaYamim 23:4,8
- Vayirka 23 verse 24, 32, & 39
- Leviticus 23:2
- Ibid 23:3
- Ibid 23:4
- Rosh Hashanah 24a
- Yehoshua 1:8
- Exodus 23:16
- Ibid 34:22
- Numbers 16:9