Saturday, April 30, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 8: Michal

Day 8: Chesed in Gevurah, Love in Strength
"When Saul realized that the Lord was with David and that Michal daughter of Saul loved him, Saul grew still more afraid of David." (1 Samuel 18:28)
Michal was King Saul's youngest daughter, whom he gave in marriage to David in the hopes that she would be his downfall. Unfortunately for Saul, Michal truly loved David and her love gave him even more power. Michal herself found strength in her love for David as well, defying her father to help David escape Saul's attempts to kill him.

Michal's story was complicated in 2 Samuel 6:16-23, when her royal understanding of decorum caused a rift between her and David, who by that point had become king. The love they shared turned to hate and Michal lost her strength, represented by the fact that, because of their argument, Michal never had children.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 7: Abigail

Day 7: Malchut in Chesed, Leadership in Kindness/Mercy
In 1 Samuel 25, soon-to-be-king David meets a wealthy, but "boorish" man named Nabal. David and his army had recently helped two of Nabal's shepherds whom they had come across in the wilderness and, upon returning the shepherds and their flocks safely to Nabal, David asked him for food and supplies to continue their journey. The ungrateful Nabal refused and David and his men set out to kill him. David was talked down from his revenge by the "intelligent and beautiful" Abigail, Nabal's wife, who quickly prepared food, rushed out to stop David, begging him to show mercy on her husband.

How Nabal ever managed to marry a woman as wonderful as Abigail is a mystery, but her quick-thinking leadership, kindness toward David, and plea for mercy saved her husband (temporarily) and won David's respect and love. Nabal died shortly thereafter, freeing Abigail to marry David.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 6: Rebecca

Day 6: Yesod in Chesed, Foundation in Love
"Sister, may you become thousands of myriads; may your descendants take possession of the gates of their foes!" (Genesis 24:60) 
"And Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah; he took Rebecca, and she became his wife and he loved her." (Genesis 24:67)
The first quote above was said by Rebecca's family as she left to marry Isaac. It is a blessing to all Jewish brides to this day, part of the bedeken (veiling) ceremony at Jewish weddings. The love that was the foundation of Rebecca and Isaac's relationship should be the foundation of all relationships.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 5: Sarah

Day 5: Hod in Chesed, Glory in Kindness
Sarah, our first matriarch, embodies hod in chesed. According to midrash (oral Torah; stories that have been passed down orally, rather than written in the Torah), Sarah's tent was open on all four sides, allowing her and Abraham to receive guests arriving from all directions. She greeted guests graciously, her open tent symbolizing an openness, hospitality, and kindness that we should all strive to emulate. The midrash goes on to say that: 
"By merit of her good deeds, the people of Israel would merit certain boons; thus, for example, Israel received the manna in the wilderness by merit of the cakes that Sarah prepared for the angels." -Tamar Kadari, JWA 
Not only did Sarah gain a reputation for kindness in her own time, but her openness brought splendor and glory to Israel for all generations.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 4: Hagar

Day 4: Netzach in Chesed, Endurance in Love
"Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child [Ishmael], and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, 'Let me not look on as the child dies.' And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears." (Genesis 21:14-16)
Hagar fulfilled many roles in Genesis. She was Sarah's slave, Abraham's concubine, the mother of his first-born son, Ishmael, and finally - cast out into the desert with Ishmael and only a few provisions - a single mother in an unforgiving world. Faced with these challenges, Hagar considered giving up. A promise from God convinced her to keep going and she managed to build a life for herself and her son, enduring and even thriving out of love for him.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 3: Rachel

Day 3: Tiferet in Chesed, Beauty in Love
We are introduced to Rachel, as with so many women in Genesis, at a well. However, unlike other women, she is described first by her occupation as a shepherdess, not by her beauty. We only learn that she was "shapely and beautiful" (Genesis 29:17) eight verses after Jacob first meets her, kisses her, and follows her home (Genesis 29:9). Her beauty is only an enhancement to a love that is based on something more.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 2: Shifra and Puah

Day 2: Gevurah in Chesed, Strength/Power in Kindness/Mercy
"The midwives, fearing God, did not do as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live...And because the midwives feared God, He established households for them." (Exodus 1:17-21)
The beginning of the Book of Exodus is replete with active, strong, compassionate women. The first two women we meet are Shifra and Puah, midwives whom Pharaoh instructed to kill all the Israelite boys immediately after delivering them. In defiance of Pharaoh, Shifra and Puah showed mercy to the Israelites and let their children live. The Hebrew for "they let the boys live" implies that this was an active role, more like "they ensured that the boys lived" by not only delivering them, but taking steps to make them healthy and strong. Because of the midwives' mercy and kindness, the Israelites continued to grow stronger and as a reward for their bravery, God strengthened and increased the households of Shifra and Puah too.

Shifra and Puah show us that we have power and agency. When we act kindly and mercifully toward each other in spite of pressures to be cruel and uncaring, we take power away from those who would do evil and strengthen the ranks of the good.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Omer 2016 Day 1: Naomi

You might have noticed at your second night seder tonight that we added a prayer:

Baruch atah adonai eloheynu melech ha'olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al sefirat ha'omer. Hayom yom echad la'omer.

Blessed are you, eternal, our God, sovereign of the world, who has made us holy with your mizvot and commanded us concerning the Counting of the Omer. Today is the first day of the Omer.

To continue Counting the Omer over the next seven weeks, you can find the daily blessings (and Jewish-themed Simpsons quotes) at Count the Homer. Here, we will be Counting the Omer Kabbalah-style (learn more at yesterday's introduction) by reflecting on the women of the Tanakh in relationship to the seven sephirot. This will make more sense as we get started (na'aseh v'nishma), so let's dive right into day 1.

Day 1: Chesed in Chesed, Kindness in Kindness

"But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, 'Turn back, each of you to her mother's house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me!'" (Ruth 1:8)
The book of Ruth begins with death. Having lost her husband and sons, Naomi decides to leave Moab, where she had lived, and return to her homeland to the city of Bethlehem. Her two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, were Moabites and, since Naomi had no more sons to offer them in marriage, here she encourages them to return to their families to seek new husbands.

We will return to Ruth's and Orpah's response later in the Omer. For now, I would like to marvel in the incredible selflessness of Noami in this moment. Alone in the world and about to embark on a long journey home, Naomi offers to give up the only companionship she has left, so that Ruth and Orpah might still have a chance at happiness someday among their own people.

Chesed in chesed is kindness in kindness, love in love, mercy in mercy. By acting with love, kindness, and mercy toward her daughters-in-law in the face of her own unspeakable loss, Naomi truly embodies this concept.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Count the Omer 2016: Women of the Tanakh

Passover begins tonight, which means it is almost time to start Counting the Omer! As you may recall from the last few years, I love Counting the Omer. If you're new to Counting the Omer, here is what you need to know:

Literally, an omer is a unit of measurement, and when the Temple stood, an omer of barley was given as an offering on the second night of Passover. Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count for seven weeks from day 1 to day 49, ending on Shavuot. Counting the Omer is a mitzvah (commandment/good deed) that commemorates our exodus from Egypt (our physical freedom) and receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai (our spiritual freedom).

Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) teaches that human experience is made up of seven sephirot (characteristics or emotions) and as we Count the Omer, we should also contemplate our inner selves. Just as the Israelites moved in seven weeks from slavery to freedom, we should seek in these seven weeks to better ourselves.

The seven sephirot are:
1. Chesed (חסד): love, kindness, mercy
2. Gevurah (גבורה): strength, power, justice, bravery
3. Tiferet (תפארת): beauty, balance, compassion
4. Netzach (נצח‎): eternity, endurance, victory
5. Hod (הוד): splendor, majesty, glory (sometimes translated as humility)
6. Yesod (יסוד): foundation, connection
7. Malchut (מלכות): leadership

Clearly there are many, sometimes conflicting translations of each of these sephirot, but we will do our best to work them out over the next seven weeks. Each week and each day of the Omer represents a different characteristic and they go in order, so it is easy to follow along. The first week is the week of chesed and the first day is also chesed, so day 1 of the Omer is chesed within chesed, day 2 is gevurah within chesed, and so on.

This year, I would like to try something different. Instead of reflecting on the sephirot in a free-form manner as I have in the past, I will relate each day to a woman from the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible).

Resources for Counting the Omer
The Homer Calendar
Judaism 101: The Counting of the Omer
Aish: The ABC's of the Omer
Aish: Daily Omer Meditation
My Jewish Learning: How to Count the Omer
Go And Learn It: Count the Omer 2015, Day 1
Go And Learn It: Count the Omer 2014
Go And Learn It: Count the Omer 2013, Day 1