Tag Archives: Pirkei Avot

In the Absence of Slamming and Dunking on the Road to Sinai: notes from pilgrimage in uneasy times

“This’ll be simple,” I thought.

But then, I’ve thought a lot of things.

In this case, the offending thought –

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.

Slam.  Dunk. 



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.

Bonus Feature: Tools for Counting the Omer

And if the counting of the Omer holds interest for you, there are a variety of resources I’ve found, each interpreting the themes in overlapping but different ways.  Two I’ve enjoyed working with have been Rabbi Yael Levy’s Journey Through the Wilderness: a mindfulness approach to the ancient Jewish practice of Counting the Omer; and Simon Jacobson’s A Spiritual Guide to the Counting of the Omer: Forty-Nine Steps to Personal Refinement.  The counting begins the second night of Passover, which this year will fall on Sunday, March 28.

Your Turn

And so, as you and I move forward, any thoughts you’d like to share about looking back? If so, please do.


Filed under counting the omer, Rabbi Tarfon, Uncategorized