I have been counting the omer for a few years now, sometimes more successfully than others, some days’ meditations more engaging others. Now that there are two (at least) apps for my iPhone, it becomes easy to remember in the evening to do the actual counting. But whether or not I spend time reflecting on how I can refine my soul to be ready, once again, to receive the torah on Shavuot, I appreciate the opportunities to watch the movement from one season to the next, and to recognize the incredible opportunity to reflect in the ways my ancestors did, whether the ones who worried about the wheat harvest, or the ones who believed that each choice they made had an impact on the whole universe and so the more they cleaved to the Eyn Sof, the One without End, the better for the universe.
My soul also seems to benefit from reflection, in what seems like a never ending process. The older I get the more refinement and reflection I still need. Some of the lessons and contemplations seem to come in groups or waves, as though telling me—really, Meredith, PAY ATTENTION!! This one’s for YOU!
And so it felt when I carefully read the meditation for today, the 8th day of counting the omer, when, according to the kabbalists, we are in the week of gevurah—strength, judgment, discipline, on the first day, when we look at our abilities, talents and needs to stretch our chesed, our lovingkindness within discipline. Here’s what I read this morning, from Simon Jacobson’s MyOmer app:
Week Two Day One
Chesed of Gevurah, Lovingkindness in Discipline
The underlying intention and motive in discipline is love. Why do we measure our behavior, establish standards and expect people to live up to them—only because of love. Even judgment of the guilty is an expression of love. In other words, punishment is not vengeance; it is just another way to express love by cleaning anything antithetical to love. Tolerance of people should never be confused with tolerance of their behavior. On the contrary: love for people includes wanting them to be the best they can be and therefore helping them be aware of anything less than perfect behavior.
Chesed of gevurah is the love in discipline; awareness of the intrinsic love that underlies discipline and judgment. It is the recognition that your personal discipline and the discipline you expect of others is only an expression of love. It is the understanding that we have no right to judge others; we have a right only to love them and that includes wanting them to be their best.
For the past two weeks, I have been preparing my paperwork for my Level 1 Consultation in my Clinical Pastoral Education (chaplaincy) training. A group comes together to determine if I have succeeded in meeting he goals set for a Level 1 chaplain. Based on my own stated growing edges, and my personal history, they gift me with their wisdom and loving challenge to be the best chaplain and human I can be.
My first response to the task of preparation was to hope that I would just get by and “be passed.” But eventually I realized—with the loving challenge of my CPE supervisor—that I was being offered another opportunity for growth and a community of chaplains who were stepping up—for me! Don’t waste it, Meredith.
For an instant, I worried I would be defensive, or worse, not good enough to join the club, they would find out some secret about me, that hidden secret that I am flawed… Then I remembered who each of these people are, and four of the five have already offered me gifts that have helped transform my way of being, in their own way.
So many of us become defensive so easily; we worry about how we will be seen. And yet, so many of us want to grow, want to be better, the best we can be. And we can be blind to our shadow side, to the behaviors that we would rather reject, disown, and ignore. So we need people who can gently, lovingly, gracefully tell us where we have strayed, where we have missed, and where we could be better.
But it’s the gentle, graceful part that is the issue, isn’t it? And that’s something the rabbis argued about millennia ago. While the Torah, indeed in this week’s portion, Kedoshim, instructs us “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and bear no guilt for them (Lev. 19:17).” It’s our responsibility to rebuke, lest we become responsible for the sin we observe in our neighbor. We are not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. But the question is, how do we give rebuke in a way that is loving and indeed helps the person grow? Rabbi Tarfon, one of the early rabbis, noted in his day, “I doubt there is anyone in this generation fit to give rebuke.” No one was free of the sins they were preparing to call their neighbor on. The Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah noted, ‘I doubt there is anyone in this generation who can accept rebuke.” He saw how defensive people were, how they did not believe the rebuke was being given in love. Then Rabbi Akiva completed the discussion, noting that he did not believe that there was a person alive who knew how to give rebuke. I know people who shudder at the word itself—rebuke has a harshness to it, a sharpness that comes from French (and undoubtedly Latin) for “to beat again.” Surely, that does not offer a way feel like it comes from a place of love, that it can offer us a place to grow. On the other hand, throughout the Tanakh, rebuke by God seems to be a sign of God’s favor, that God is doing it as a way to help us be better, as a parent guides their child (Pr. 3:14). It is not necessarily sharp, although it may wound, but the the wound will heal (Job 5:17).
On the other hand, I have seen—just today—friends recoil at the idea that we might be bold enough to say what would make someone else uncomfortable, that we might speak our truths and it might help the person made uncomfortable. I know that four of the people who will be at my consultation next week have already taken what I see as the loving step to rebuke me about something—either big or small, but always important to my chaplaincy. Some of them did not fill good at the time, but each led to growth I appreciate. It took awhile to see the place of love it came from, but they hung in with me. And I am grateful. So very grateful.
Someone once told me that he thinks it is possible that each interaction we have is either someone asking for love or someone offering it. While I don’t believe it is universally true, because I don’t think anything is universally true, I think there is enough truth to pay closer attention to my interactions: who is asking for it, who is giving it? How are they asking? Am I offering love often enough? Am I helping people I love be the best person they can be? Or do I shy away? And am I offering my love in a way people can hear it, take it in and grow?
Those are important questions as we continue the journey from Pesach to Shavuot, from the anxiety over whether we will have enough to eat to the possibility of plenty, from liberation to revelation. What’s your answer?
Marian Blanton says
Rebuke and love are antithetical qualities; they can no more be mixed than oil and water. I like suggestions, rather than rebukes, if we’re interested in helping our friends develop greater chesed. On a totally different subject, did you include an earlier photo of Sam and Olya–very startling since we didn’t know one another in those earlier times.
How about a short, succinct explanation of “counting the omer” for those of us who do not wait for shavuot in the intense way you describe. Guess I’m an intellectual as well as a tribal Jew. I love “wrestling with the text” and of course, special foods which accompany our holidays.
Meredith Cahn says
So I am guessing you just don’t buy that argument that it is from love that we rebuke–that we want our beloved to be the best they can be, so we have to look for ways to say it so that they can hear. I find it very compelling, because we don’t want to waste our time on the people who aren’t important in our lives. and we do want our loved ones to be the best people they can be. I know I wish that my family would join me on the spiritual journeys i go on.
you can google all sorts of sites for information on counting the omer. here’s Shomrei Torah’s explanation. http://www.shomreitorah.org/counting-the-omer/
another site (one i refer to as i count) gives the spiritual interpretation: http://www.meaningfullife.com/torah/holidays/8b/Your_Guide_to_Personal_Freedom_-_Week_1.php
But short and sweet? The counting of the omer is commanded in the torah (Leviticus 23:15-16; Deuteronomy 16:9-10). The pshat level of this is for our ancestors to count their days between the barley and wheat harvest, noting the growth of wheat in a rain uncertain time; would there be enough to get us through the summer? We count for seven weeks of seven days, until Shavuot on the 50th days. On a remez level, it is a way of counting our days. On the drash level, it is another of the opportunities afforded by our sacred calendar to be mindful of keeping our souls clean and ready for the torah.
the kabbalists, in their compulsive way of honoring rituals devised a way of meditating on our character, using the lower seven sefirot, the sacred qualities with which the Holy Blessed One created the universe, as the steps by which to explore keep our souls schmutz-free. the meaningfullife link is the best one to look at if you want to explore that.