Springtime is not necessarily a calm period in the Jewish calendar. The changeover between the seasons is abrupt in and of itself: one day it is winter, the next day, after much cleaning and schlepping and shopping and cooking, it is Passover and, according to our liturgy, spring. Then, as quickly as the second seder ends, we begin to count the Omer.
The Omer is the period of 49 days we count, one day at a time, from the second seder until Shavuot, the holiday that marks when the Israelites received the Torah from God. In the Dispatches from the Diaspora column I wrote last year about counting the Omer (May 30, 2016), I discussed some of the different attributes or qualities associated with each week, and each day, of the period of the Omer. There are seven qualities or attributes associated with each day and week of the Omer, based on what the sages considered to be the seven qualities or attributes of the divine and the kabbalistic understanding of the universe. When we count each day, we note the two qualities associated with that day and how they complement and relate to each other.
The seven qualities are: Chesed – loving kindness; Gevurah – strength, justice, awe, discipline; Tiferet – beauty, compassion, harmony; Netzah – endurance, ambition; Hod – humility, splendour; Yesod – nurturing; and Malkhut – nobility, leadership.
The counting of the Omer is a time of intense reflection, akin to the period leading up to the High Holy Days during the month of Elul. Indeed, the preparation for Passover itself and, de facto, the period of the Omer, feels akin to the spiritual preparation we undertake before Tishrei.
Please forgive my intellectual leaps, but I think there are connections. My household takes Pesach prep seriously. We spent days cleaning and scouring and ridding the house of chametz. We exchanged our normal dishes for Passover dishes and replaced the food in our cupboards and fridge with kosher le Pesach options. The night before the first seder, we did the ritual of Bedikat Chametz and searched for 10 pieces of chametz hidden in the house, symbolic of all the chametz that had been there before.
The next morning, we burned those pieces of chametz in the Be-ur Chametz ritual and said: “Any leaven that may still be in the house, that I have or have not seen, that I have or have not removed, shall be as if it does not exist, and as the dust of the earth.” Those words emphasize that what is important with the Pesach preparations is intention. If we prepare fully in our hearts for Passover, it’s OK to find a few crumbs of bread in your spring jacket sometime during the week ahead. It’s the thought that counts; it’s the kavannah that matters.
I had not participated in those rituals since I was a child, and I had forgotten how powerful they were. Both the Bedikat Chametz and the Be-ur Chametz felt like the opportunity to cleanse; it reminded me of submerging in the mikvah, and it reminded me of the soul-searching we do during Elul before asking for forgiveness on Yom Kippur.
Passover is not a time of deprivation of chametz or our favourite daily coffee mug, it is an opportunity to cleanse ourselves of what is not necessary and concentrate instead on what we really need. It is a kind of spring cleaning, an opportunity to purge. And the practice of counting the Omer inspires us to think deeply about key aspects of spirituality and how we might want to be in the world. What better preparation for remembering the gift of the Torah than to meditate, for a few weeks, on themes such as loving kindness (Chesed), justice (Gevurah), endurance (Netzah), and leadership (Malkhut). When I think of the parallels between Elul and Nissan, I find that our calendar and its rhythms are so balanced.
With Elul, we witness the end of summer and the beginning of fall. In Nissan, we see winter retreat and spring arrive, and with it the hope of new growth and new life. With each new opening of a leaf bud, with each new blossom, I encourage us to think of and be grateful for nurturing (Yesod), beauty (Tiferet), and splendour (Hod).