Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Counting the Omer - The Creation of Meaning (Part 6)

In previous posts, I discussed the murky historical origins of counting the omer and Shavuot. I also discussed how this is reflected in textual ambiguities and confusion. In this post, I would like to examine how people have come to create meaning for this ritual. This historical gloss---wholly apart from any underlying original meaning of the ritual---is in fact what most of us who count the omer experience when we count the omer.

Various midrashim (and later the Zohar) state that the Jews had descended to the 49th level of impurity in Egypt. Another midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:11 and Song of Songs Rabbah 2:5, included in Bialek's Sefer HaAggadah, p. 78, no. 25) states that the Jews could have received the Torah on the day they left Egypt, but they were physically weak and needed a few months to recover. In both cases, they needed spiritual or physical healing, and this took place during the time between Passover and Shavuot, or during the omer-counting season.

This idea gave rise to the kabalistic tradition of assigning the seven lower sefirot (or emanations of God) to each of the seven weeks and days, giving 49 combinations. The details of this idea are pretty well known and covered in many places on the web. Aish HaTorah has a good explanation. The basic idea is that just as the ancient Jews spiritually improved themselves from the degradations of slavery to the holiness of a people ready to receive a direct revelation from God, we too can improve ourselves during the omer-counting period.

This is actually quite a useful activity. I have had some great conversations with my kids about real examples of the omer count of the day (one of which---pertaining to a baseball game---I recounted here). And I have had some more serious adult discussions and introspections about the different sefirot.

But there is an important aspect of all this that should not be overlooked: it has nothing to do with the original understanding of counting of the omer. No early text mentions the sefirot or anything similar. These are all later creations that were linked to the counting of the omer, and because of their cleverness, wisdom, and utility have become widely accepted.

There are many other examples of this. For example, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has a thoughtful discussion of how the omer counting reflects two different ideas of time: cyclical time and linear time. (Joni Mitchell picked up on the same theme, more or less, as I discussed here.) Like most of Rabbi Sacks' commentary, this one is really insightful. But it is an analysis that is prompted by the omer counting rather than solidly contained within the omer counting.

One final example. Pirke Avot is a volume of the mishnah with collection of wisdom sayings. Pirke Avot 6:6 states that "Torah is acquired through 48 things" and then lists 48 character traits, such as "study, attentiveness, orderly speech, an understanding heart" etc. Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, picked up on this idea and linked it to the counting of the omer. He called it the "48 Ways to Wisdom" and this set of teachings is one of the central study units of Aish HaTorah. Each of R. Weinberg's "ways to wisdom" is a contemporary version of the methods of acquiring Torah from Pirke Avot 6:6. These can be studied, one at a time, during the omer counting period. The webpage with all the information is here.

R. Weinberg developed a smart and useful set of wisdom ideas, and this is and well worth studying. But a few aspects of this stand out for our purposes here.

The first one is the discrepancy in the numbers. There are 49 days of omer counting but only 48 methods of acquiring Torah. R. Weinberg neatly solves this problem with "Organization" as the 49th way: review what you have learned, memorize it, keep it in a logical order, etc. And there is a 50th one of the 48 ways as well: "gratitude" on Shavuot itself.

But a more interesting issue is the differences between Pirke Avot's 48 ways and R. Weinberg's 48 ways. Many of these are the the same, and R. Weinberg simply elaborates on Pirke Avot. For example, the first method of acquiring Torah is "study" (or "talmud"), and R. Weinberg's first way to wisdom is "being aware every minute," which is a form of studying life itself.

But in several instances, R. Weinberg reverses the plain meaning of Pirke Avot. For example, the 14th way of acquiring Torah in Pirke Avot 6:6 is "a minimum of business activity." This method of acquiring Torah is followed by five other "minimizations": a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, a minimum of indulgence in worldly pleasure, a minimum of sleep, a minimum of conversation, and a minimum of laughter. These six collectively paint a stark image of a Torah scholar: minimal involvement in worldly affairs and pleasures, and instead long hours studying Torah. This is how great Torah scholars become great Torah scholars, but this is not a message that will sit well with Aish HaTorah's key target audience: non-Orthodox Jews who are thinking of becoming Orthodox. Americans are not into austerity.

Rabbi Weinberg deftly handles this problem. For example, he recasts the first method "minimizing business activity" as "Apply Business Accumen To Living." He starts off by noting briefly that we need to work to earn a living, but we should not overdo it and should also work to acquire wisdom. After this initial nod to the original text, he then notes that we can use some of the tools of business to do so. The rest of the article is a elaboration of these tools: operate efficiently, commit to goals, etc.

He does the same with the other minimizations. Instead of minimizing pleasure, we have Harnessing the Power of Sex (in the context of marriage) and The Use of Physical Pleasure. A "minimum of conversation" becomes The Art of Conversation. And a "minimum of laughter" becomes Laugh at Your Troubles.

I certainly do not have a problem with any of R. Weinberg's teachings here. They seem wise to me, and in many ways fit more comfortably with my worldview than the original Pirke Avot teachings. I am not a hedonist, but I am not ascetic either. I simply note here that several of R. Weinberg's ideas are not quite the same as the original teachings in Pirke Avot, and do not have any inherent connection with counting the omer.

This is not a criticism. R. Weinberg and R. Sacks and the kabbalists did what Jews have always done, and in fact have done it better than most Jews. They created new ideas full of wisdom and insight and linked them to existing ideas or ritual---here, the counting of the omer.

The meaning or importance of counting the omer does not lie in its original context. Best that I can figure, that original context was a way of setting a late-spring wheat offering relative to the date of an earlier early-spring barley offering. That does not carry much significance for me, a lawyer living in Los Angeles in the 21st Century. The importance lies in the layers of meaning that subsequent generations have added to this earlier ritual: the bridge between freedom from slavery celebrated at Passover and the holiness required for the giving of the Torah celebrated at Shavuot, personal growth and spiritual improvement and wisdom, and God and godliness refracted through 49 separate paired combinations of seven aspects of God and godliness, and themes of historical and cyclical time.

At the beginning of this series, I noted that many Jews have problems with relevance and authenticity. I think counting the omer shows a way around this problem.

Counting the omer seems to be inherently irrelevant: counting to 49 one day at a time. The best argument for its inherent irrelevance is that no one other than Jews does this. But the relevance of a mitzvah like this comes from the inherent importance of the ideas and themes created over time and associated with this mitzvah.

The authenticity of the ritual comes both from its relevance and its long historical tradition. People do not passively receive and understand a tradition; they also help create it. The great thinkers that have come before us have developed some pretty great ideas, and those ideas have become part of Judaism, regardless of whether they were there initially. (We also have had some terrible ideas that have been discarded along the way in the gale of creative destruction.) These all are an authentic part of Judaism.

Here is my humble addition to counting the omer. I told my kids that if we counted all 49 days without missing one, we could go out for ice cream after Shavuot. My older son stopped counting somewhere in the 30s, but I finished last night and my younger son (whose bedtime is before it is completely dark) finished this morning. We did it.

So in addition to relevance and authenticity, counting the omer---properly construed---also involves ice cream.

Chag sameach.

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