– no, that’s too harsh, not offending, more like…well actually, nothing is like this!…so let’s drop the qualifier and begin again –
In this case, the thought was, seven themes for each of the seven weeks of counting the Omer from Pesach (or Passover) to Shavuot, or from the constriction of slavery in Egypt through freedom to revelation at Sinai. So a blog post a week for each theme.
A year later, with the last post in this series only now being delivered, movement forward still requires unaccustomed effort. And yet, a recent thawing of ice has allowed me for the first time in months to return to the ravine of solace featured in the first post. When others approach on the path, three abreast, I take a detour. And as I mount the stone steps, feeling the exertion of heart and breath, I am reminded of long hikes and longer-distance walks from the beforetimes. I feel energized and enlivened. Hopeful.
All of it is true – the new variants, and the evidence of a third wave; the pain of this past year, endured even by those of us comparatively well-insulated from the worst of the pandemic, and the springtime arrival of vaccines, pointing a light forward.
The passage through the counting of the Omer could well feel different this year, with its promise of freedom restored.
But before next year’s Omer, what of this past year’s?
The theme of the seventh and final week of the counting is malchut, often associated with sovereignty, an invitation to consider the quality of one’s leadership, in relation to the previous themes.
“Has the way I lead in the world,” I ask myself, “whether in formal settings or the example I have the potential to set for others, been done with the right measure of chesed (loving-kindness), gevurah (boundaries), tiferet (balance), netzach (endurance), hod (gratitude), and yesod (connection)?”
The answer, of course, is “definitely not.” And, also, “definitely yes.”
I think of a passage from Pirkei Avot, the classic repository of rabbinic wisdom.
“Rabbi Tarfon used to say, ‘It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.’” *
And so, maybe the most important question I can ask is not whether I got it exactly right, but whether I tried and whether I grew. And whether I’m willing to commit to growing more in the year ahead.
And I remind myself that Pesach, more than being an opportunity to celebrate one’s own liberation, asks us to remember the responsibilities that accompany freedom, for the commandment that appears most in the Torah is to treat the stranger well, the reason given often being, “for you were strangers in Egypt” (for those who like chapter-and-versing, examples may be found in Exodus 22:21 and Leviticus 19:34).
How, then, may I support refugees of all cultures as they work their path through this small, blue globe and in this expansive nation? What can I do to help fellow Jews who lack the means to purchase such Pesach essentials as matzo?
Let me tend to these responsibilities, then, before Passover begins again and I return to Egypt so that I can once more be released.
To Jewish followers of this blog, I wish you a chag same’ach. And to all of you, I wish you movement forward and springtime rejuvenation.
* With appreciation to Rabbi Aviva Goldberg, who put this passage in my mind often enough that it managed to stay there.
It’s March of this year and I’m not thinking about the Omer yet.
In fact, I’m thinking about very little.
I’m at a week-long silent meditation retreat, where I spent the first few days overcome with fatigue, struggling to stay awake, and navigating the accompanying internal noise.
“Why did I do things so last minute and get here so tired?” says my accusing mind. “What’s the point in having spent the money on this retreat if I can’t even stay awake through the sits and the dharma talks?”
“Go easy,” my gentler mind replies. “And try to remember that all of this is practice, the fatigue included.”
Then, as the fatigue fades, I find myself with as quiet a mind as I can recall.
And now, on the last night of the retreat, as we start to leave the meditation hall for our last formal walking period before bed, I push myself off the cushion, wait for my legs to uncramp, and make my way to a small room where I’ve done a lot of the walking the past couple of days. The room is dark and, besides me, unoccupied. I’m a little saddened. There are never many people in this room, and that’s one of the reasons I like it. But there are usually at least a couple of others, and that’s another reason I like it.
I find a spot on the side, leaving room for fellow retreatants who I hope will appear, and take small steps, giving full attention to each one as best I can – the feel of my toes pushing off the floor, and the feeling of landing. I notice the way my arms move for balance, and the pulsing in my fingertips. Occasionally, the wooden floor creeks below my step.
As I reach the wall and turn around, the aloneness strikes me again, and I console myself.
Sure, it would be nice to have others here, I think. This retreat has underlined for me that when I get home, I need to find a sangha where I can be supported in my practice, and support others. But even so, most of the time, my practice will be alone, meditating on a cushion at home. Maybe this is a good transition back to that solitude.
The thoughts having been worked through, I try to leave them aside, and resume walking, returning my attention to footfall, foot rise, breath, torso, limbs.
The door opens, and I am immediately soothed. As my fellow retreatant finds a spot and begins walking, even though we go at different paces, and sometimes in different directions, and even though I may never learn his name or say a word to him, I feel fortified by this companionship.
It’s not words through which I know this. I know it in my bones.
And as quiet as my mind has gotten, in the presence of my fellow sojourner, it becomes quieter still.
II – Yesod during the Omer
It’s May of this year, and we are in the sixth week of the counting of the Omer, the passage from constriction to liberation to revelation. To be more precise, it’s the week of Yesod, often associated with connection, a precious commodity now that Covid has circled the globe. Sanghas have gone online, but online isn’t working for me, so instead, here I sit at my perch in the ravine, among streams and rocks and trees.
I look at my watch. I’d like to linger, but I need to get back home.
I step into my place a couple of minutes before 7:30 in the evening, just enough time to wash my hands, and get on the balcony. I wait for the clanging somebody I can’t see always makes at this moment. Then I join in, artlessly drumming on the doumbek, a gift given to me twenty years ago, which I have never used until now. Others start banging pots and pans, someone plays a foghorn, someone else a bass drum, another sets off fireworks. A little girl in leotards dances to the cacophonous symphony, my part in which draws my out here every night, including – or especially – on the days I least feel like it.
This daily noisemaking ritual is intended, of course, to offer encouragement to those working on the frontlines, and I’ve heard from some that they are in fact heartened by it. But in these times of isolation, amidst this community of mostly strangers, I for one am getting twice as much as I’m giving.
III – Yesod after the Omer
Maybe it’s the lengthening and warming days as summer approaches, or maybe it’s the realization that there’s no end in sight to the battle with Covid, but for some reason, the 7:30 noisemaking tapers off. I help keep it going a little longer, as far as I can tell, by flat-palming the drum for as much reverberation as possible, a cue taken by others who appear on their balconies and get to banging. But inevitably, the numbers dwindle to a straggler or two, and I wonder if my unskilled drumming, without pots and pans to accompany it, is more a source of annoyance than pleasure.
I guess I’m not as much of a soloist as I’ve thought.
I leave the doumbek inside, happy to pick it up again should the community ever come back together.
IV – Yesod after the after
And that is the last occasion of physical community I’ve had until this moment. There has been some hanging out with friends in parks and backyards, and a lot of online – with friends, family, community – that has taught me about both the merits and limits of online. Online prayer has taught me, for instance, that it’s usually harder for me to connect with the Divine when I have to do without physical company. That didn’t used to be true, but after going through the process that concluded almost a year ago of saying Kaddish in shul for my father for the customary eleven months, it’s true now.
So sure, in this solitude, I’m doing okay. “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” I’ve taken to saying, “but fortunately, I keep finding it again.”
Still, to put things as eloquently as possible…
We were not made for this!!!
Tell you what, though. I’ll stand tall if you will.
Tell us, if you would, something about your relationship to connection in these disconnecting times. What is is like to have it so diminished? How have you managed to keep it going?
Four months ago, I set out on a pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, from slavery in Egypt to revelation at Sinai, and invited you to join me. About hallway through, I kept going, and even experienced what might be a little revelation. I abandoned you, though. I didn’t call. I didn’t write.
But I do apologize.
Blame it on the emotional and spiritual dishevelment a global pandemic can bring. And blame it, too, on hod, the theme of the fifth week of the counting of the Omer, which is associated, among other traits, with gratitude.
A slam-dunk, I thought.
For years now, I’ve done Jewish gratitude practices throughout the course of the day, beginning with the Modeh Ani (Thankful am I) prayer upon arising, and saying brachot, or blessings, for everything from the clothes on my back to the steadiness of my footsteps. With hod in mind, the plan was to pay even closer attention to opportunities for gratitude.
But to my disappointment, even dismay, this put me in the face of the flatness I’ve often felt in recent times, from which brachot could not be counted on to save me. Sometimes they would lift my spirits, as I noted the waxing of the moon, the refreshing scent in the air after rainfall, the extraordinary confluence of the efforts of humans and the elements in bringing food to my plate. But discomfortingly often, I would feel like I was going through the motions, doing not much more in reciting brachot than exercising my gratitude muscles to make sure they didn’t atrophy. A worthy habit, but hardly everything I was hoping for.
And who wants to report on that in a blog intended to offer encouragement?
Fortunately, it doesn’t end there.
If tried and true practices needed to be granted some slack – after all, how would you like the pressure of being a practice that more people desperately need than ever? – maybe it was time to try some alternatives.
So with that, I present for your consideration, other approaches to gratitude that have helped in recent weeks.
The Eyes Don’t Have It
I had begun a walk through Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the ravines into which it leads, a beautiful urban landscape. And yet, well into the walk, amidst the Norway spruce, silver maple, and mugo pine trees, though I could recognize their beauty, they weren’t lifting my spirits much.
Putting things on pause, I headed to the street for some takeout. And when I was done and about to resume my walk – to push through, as it were – I took a minute to close my eyes and tune in to my other senses.
As my breath offered some settling, the din of traffic was suddenly no din at all, but rather the hum of a human hive on wheels, rushing towards a better moment. The breeze against my bare skin was a cooling balm. My arms and pulsing fingertips were the vessels through which surging rivers of sensation were coursing, proclaiming aliveness. A thunderous clunk jarred my eyes open, and I saw a car pulling an empty, clattering trailer. Something about it made me happy, and it didn’t matter that I had no idea why.
I stood, closed my eyes again, followed my breath for a little while, and resumed the walk, everything seeming both deeper and lighter, every footstep feeling sacred, every vista a gift. I wanted to feel this way forever, but I more or less knew better, and as the good feelings eventually started to leave, rather than grasp for more, I felt grateful to have experienced them at all.
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You
A different day, a different walk.
I’m taking a new route out of the ravine, something I’d imagined might be a shortcut, along what turns out to be a noisy road on a searingly hot day. I want the unpleasantness to be over as quickly as possible.
But I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to speed things up is by slowing them down. Inhabiting the moment instead of pushing it away.
So with each footstep, I say, “Thank You.” And again. “Thank You.” I keep repeating it. And with each “Thank You,” I am enlivened by things I’d been unaware of only moments earlier – a soft breeze rustling some leaves, birdsong on my left and birdsong on my right, the feel of a pebble under my foot, the glint of sunlight off a door handle.
“Thank You. Thank You.”
I’m in the ravine on a morning where sadness is a stronger force than I would like, and the walk isn’t making me happier. I could turn back, but I trust that forward is best, perhaps by way of the catharsis of a good cry.
Perching myself where the brook runs over some rocks, I let tears flow. Hitbodedut or self-seclusion, comes to mind.
The version of hitbodedut taught by Rebbe Nachman of Bratzslav is to find a spot in nature and pour one’s heart out to God in an uncurated, stream-of-conscious way. The rationalist in me wants to roll its eyes, but the rationalist in me has proven it doesn’t have all the answers. So if it’s on my mind or in my heart, I say it. I talk and plead and thank – by the rocks, on a footbridge, on a path.
I feel some loosening, some healing. Something sustaining.
Blessed are You, source of all being, who grants strength to the weary
Baruch Atah Adonay, I add, eloheinu melech ha’olam, sh’asani Yisrael
Blessed are You, source of all being, who has made me of the people yis-ra-el. A god-wrestler.
Yes, thankful for all of this. Even as it becomes clear that, at the moment, gratitude practice is only carrying me so far. Fortunately, I’ve been given capacity – which I take less for granted now than ever – for finding other sources of strength, other ways of servingthat I must now explore.
Baruch Atah Adonay, chonein ha’da’at
Blessed are You, source of all being, who bestows knowledge.
Well, I like to think I’ve done a solid job here of illustrating how difficult accessing gratitude can be at times like these, and what might help. But I’m most definitely a work-in-progress on this. Care to offer a guy and his followers suggestions or counsel on tapping into gratitude or what to do when it’s elusive, based on your own experience?
(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage throughthe counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, in which one works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag; this exploration of netzach, or endurance and eternity, covers the period April 30-May 8. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)
It’s going to be different this time. I’m sure of it.
And it’s about time, too.
If you’re bored one day, and think seeing the lesser angel of my nature might be entertaining, check me out on an off day when I need to put in a call to customer service at my cable and internet provider. Even before the call is made, I’m bracing for endless prompts and “then press pounds,” until at last I’m finally told to hit zero if my call “is about something else.”
My calls always seem to be about something else.
While waiting for the customer service representative who will draw the short straw and be forced to attend to me, I not infrequently get into a spat with the recorded messages.
“We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes.”
“That’s what you said the last time, and the time before that. How about staffing up for your new normal?”
“Your call is very important to us – ”
“Oh, I know. You’d be bereft without me.”
“- and we appreciate your patience.”
“Don’t give me too much credit.”
If, on one of my lesser days, the unfortunate rep who gets me sounds too scripted for me tastes when asking how I’m doing today, they’re likely to be met with “I’m fine” in an icily cool tone. And they’re certainly not asked how they’re doing. Once I’ve explained my issue, when they repeat it back, whoa are they if I have to correct them. My words may be civil, but they come slowly and reluctantly, as if I don’t know how much longer I can endure.
Me at anything but my best.
Hopefully, somewhere along the way – early in the call, ideally – I catch myself, and make adjustments, remembering the rep is under the watchful ear of a supervisor while dealing with many a crappy customer, and I summon my more pleasant, cooperative self. Too often, though, the call ends with my having made the rep’s life less pleasant than it needs to be. Though I may regret it soon after, by then there’s nothing to be done.
But something is going on these days.
We are now in the fourth week of the counting of the omer, the week of netzach, commonly translated as endurance and eternity. The week of pushing through on the journey from the constriction of slavery to revelation.
Netzach seems an invitation to ask, “How am I enduring these difficult times? And what from these troublesome days might I like to see survive into the better days that will come?”
Among other things, my newly acquired habit of taking the stairs instead of the elevator comes to mind. As does the opportunity I’ve taken advantage of to give daily attention to the same group of trees from my balcony, and watch their day-to-day transition.
But what would I like to see endure that benefits more than me?
I am seated on the meditation cushion, doing Buddhist metta or loving-kindness practice. Typically, the practice begins with extending good wishes to oneself – for instance, silently saying, “May I be safe. May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I live with ease.” And from there, those wishes are extended concentrically outward, such as to a being from whom we’ve experienced unconditional love, other loved ones, those about whom our feelings our neutral, people we find difficult, and finally, all beings.
When I was first introduced to the practice, I confided resistance to one of my teachers. How would others, I asked, benefit from my silently and stealthily wishing them well? “You may not change them,” he said, “but you’re going to change yourself.”
And he was right. I wasn’t long into the practice before I saw that it helped me more easily and consistently access patience and compassion for myself and others.Even if cable company reps are too frequently given cause for skepticism.
Lately, something has changed when I do metta.
When I get to the juncture where I’m to wish safety, happiness, good health and ease to a person about whom my feelings are neutral, I can’t come up with anyone. Visualizing others I’ve only glancingly encountered, my feelings are anything but neutral. It’s clearer than ever that they’re carrying the same burdens as me, and why it is they should be wished safety and good health. Though I don’t know them, I know enough that I’m feeling too much compassion to have only neutral feelings about them.
Then, when I try to bring someone to mind who I find difficult, I’m similarly challenged. Maybe out on the street and in the ravine, my judgement and ire are triggered by those who are less heedful of physical distancing than they should be, but here on the cushion, it’s a struggle to remember what they look like, and to think of them as difficult. They, like me, are just trying to manage their way through a time none of us are equipped to handle. So most times, I settle for people I’ve found difficult in the past, but towards whom I feel kindness now.
Even before I pick up the phone to call the cable company, I can feel the difference in my body. I start to brace myself for the menu options and pound keys, and discover I lack umbrage. And the small degree of resentment I’ve managed to marshal dissipates entirely when I get a new recording informing me that the long wait times I can expect have to do with prioritizing customers in need of emergency services. While I wait, I think about the economic fallout from these days, and what it means for the job security of the rep with whom I’ll be speaking.
So when I finally get through, and am required to speak to multiple people, and given multiple answers to my one question, I recognize this for the small stuff it is. I still don’t ask the reps how they’re doing, but it’s not because I don’t care. It’s because my instincts tell me they’re too busy to get into it, and also, I fear that their script will require them to answer “fine, thank you,” even though that’s likely not true. But I’m hoping that the cooperative and friendly tone which is coming from me is just as good.
“I see friends shaking hands,” Louis Armstrong once sang for us, “saying ‘how do you do?’ They’re really saying, I love you.”
When the call ends, maybe my better angel has shown up and I’ve made the lives of people who are required to serve me a little better than they would have been otherwise.
It’s not that this has never happened before, but it seems to be coming more easily right now.
And so, let conduct of this kind be my way of enduring these times.
And also, let it be something more.
I don’t think my teacher was entirely correct in saying that metta would only change me. Because the greater my capacity to connect with patience and compassion, the better I make the lives of everyone I encounter, and by extension, the lives of all they encounter, and so on, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.
Let this be the netzach, the eternity, that comes of these times.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say, you and me both, we’ve got this.
In anticipation of writing this post, I invited others to convey how netzach – endurance and eternity – has played out for them. And with that, it’s my pleasure to share the following reflections from David Orenstein
My Omer Netzach
Like many of us, daily walks are an expression of Netzach during this shutdown pandemic Omer.
Early in the shutdown, I decided that I would take an early morning walk, in my Riverdale neighbourhood, first thing every day. That is first thing after I feed the cats, bring in the Globe and the Star, maybe check for the Moon, planets and stars, perform my morning ablutions and get dressed. Getting home from the walk I make breakfast for our household.
Back in mid-March, the weather was not always pleasant but I was determined. But in addition to the push of improving my health and maintaining a regular schedule, was soon added the pull of the pleasure of moving my body and the scenic local parks, gardens and architecture.
By now these walks are the best part of my day. As I write, in early May, there are daily changes in the flowers and trees. I’ve worked out quite a variety of interesting return trips. Also I can meet friends and neighbours for short, safely distanced schmooze sessions.
This evokes an earlier period in my life when endurance in walking paid off. Many years before I retired from teaching and was still working, I was feeling perpetually exhausted and emotionally drained. Not only was I teaching my classes with a total of up to 180 students, but I had the heavy commitment of being a member of the local union executive for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation in Toronto, along with political commitments and involvement with scholarship, culture and a social life.
So I decided to start my day with a twenty minute walk, on a slight uphill grade, to the Christie subway station. This project also started in challenging March weather. Luckily as my willpower and determination wore off the more clement weather and the burgeoning neighbourhood gardens made this early trek a positive pleasure.
(This blog series focuses on pilgrimage through the counting of the Omer, marking the seven-week passage from the Jewish holidays of Passover to Shavuot, in which one works each week with different traits both human and Divine. You’ll find more context in the first post in this series. Also, please excuse the Omer-to-blog lag; this exploration of tiferet, or balance, covers the period April 23-30. I think it would be fair to say, though, that there’s no expiration date for the matters at hand.)
I’ve been perched a while on my secluded rock in the ravine, spending time amidst water, wind, trees, light.
Suddenly, a frantic flapping of wings – a couple of ducks putting on reverse thrusters as they land with a splash in the stream beside me.
I think about going for my camera, but don’t want to make any sudden moves, as I’ve decided I’m the Jane Goodall of omer-counters, a quiet presence around whom the wildlife feel unthreatened. (Or maybe the urban experience of these waterfowl is such that they’re accustomed and unfrightened by humans, but since this is not my preferred thought, I go back to being Goodall.)
After a short while, one of them, the more colourful, coasts over closer to me, concentric circles emanating outwards.
“Beautiful,” I think. “Now, the camera.”
Tiferet, though, has me pause a moment.
In this third week of the counting of the omer, the overarching trait with which one works is tiferet, variously translated as splendour, truth, and balance. One way in which balance comes into the picture is to find the right proportion of the first two week’s practices – how much open-hearted, chesed (loving-kindness) to extend, and how much gevurah (boundary-making) to employ.
Winter 2007 – I’m aboard the Southwest Chief, the train that runs from Los Angeles to Chicago. I’ve been travelling in stages, and got on about a half hour ago in Raton, New Mexico.
As always, I’d headed to the viewing car and its floor-to-ceiling windows.
As we pass through grazing and ranch land, I hear a gasp and a “wow!” from the other side. I stand up to see a horse galloping alongside the train, its combination of grace and speed providing a thrill of a kind I’ve never known. I reach back to my seat, grab my camera, take off the lens cover, and turn back.
The horse is gone.
I will think often of this moment, regretting that I tried to capture rather than live it.
Spring 2017 – I am following the arrows, walking the Camino Portuges, the pilgrimage route that runs from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
I’ve chosen the coastal route, carrying my backpack from village-to-village, the Atlantic Ocean on my left, waves crashing against rocks, locals calling out, “Buen Camino!”
Somewhere between Matosinhos and Vila Cha I spot a group of young equestrians. Still on their mounts, most are watching a trio of classmates at the far end of the beach. Suddenly, their horses are in motion, kicking up sand, hooves a blur of speed. As they get closer, I think of my camera. And then, I think of the Southwest Chief, and leave the camera alone so I can simply enjoy the gift of watching them race past, the horses beating out thunder on the ground, the blue-green ocean for a backdrop.
The trio come to a stop and turn around. For another charge along the shore? “Okay,” I tell myself. “The camera can come out. But set it up so that if the moment comes, you’re not experiencing it through a viewfinder.” The moment does come.
The picture I take is slightly out of focus. The delight of the moment is not.
In the ravine, I think of chesed as the voice that says, “Yes, take the picture. Capture the moment. Keep it for yourself, share and show it off to others.” While gevurah says, “Not so fast. These moments come once. Try to capture them and they’re gone; don’t participate from the sidelines.”
When the duck drifts my way, tiferet lets chesed and gevurah have their say, then finds a middle path, just as it did on the Camino. First, be here, in case here goes away. Breathe in this gift, and breathe it in again. And then, if it lasts, get out your camera and click. Unlike the Camino, though, this time my subject is slow-moving, and I could take dozens of pictures till I get the perfect shot.
Gevurah says, “Remember. You’re Goodall. Not Ansel Adams.”
Even chesed has me let go of the camera, saying, “Listen to your body. Your body doesn’t want to work that hard. It just wants to be here.”
Sometimes, I guess, tiferet has to negotiate between chesed and gevurah, and other times it lets them find their own path to the same destination.
So a couple more pics, and the technology is put aside. I hang out with the ducks for some time, until a rambunctious golden retriever charges into the water and sends them flapping away.
And with tiferet’s assistance, I am full, still enjoying this opportunity to breath easy.
How about you? What’s your experience of late or of life in findingthat sweet spot where tiferet finds harmony between chesed or loving-kindness and gevurah or boundary-making? Or how have you witnessed it in others? Got advice or insights you would care to offer?