Transformation Through Love

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Sefirat Haomer, Part I

By: Shimona Tzukernik

It’s a memory I’ll never forget. Maybe I was eleven. As part of a group, we were taken to an orphanage. To call it bare would be an understatement. My memories are fuzzy but the leitmotif was of concrete. In an open area outside the building, children milled around without speaking. There were no toys and nothing of color.

Off-center lay a toddler on the ground. No blanket, no sibling, no adult. He had a cut on his ear and flies bumped into each other prying for blood. He was so deeply alone in the world, I felt it almost a violation to pick him up.

Years later, I would think of him. With all the love in the world, why do so many of us go through life bereft of, or yearning for, it? What is so compelling about love that we’d give our all to get it? And yet, what makes us afraid of giving – or even receiving – it?

Imagine pooling the full range of human emotion into one pot and then boiling away the excess, releasing all the subtleties and intersecting points and overlays into the atmosphere. We’d come down to seven core ways to feel. Seven base elements of how to emotionally experience the world and give expression to that. And if we further boiled those ingredients, we’d arrive at one essential ability – love.

Love and oneness are bound together. Love is the one point from which all other feelings spring. In Hebrew the numerical value for love, ahava, is thirteen. So too is the value of one, echad. So love and oneness are bound together. When we say, “G‑d is One,” we’re also saying, “G‑d is Love.”

We yearn deeply for love because it connects us to G‑d, to others, to creation. Love is the cosmic glue which reassures us that the apparent multiplicity of creation is just that – apparent. It brings to consciousness the truth that despite the bits and pieces, we are all part of a greater whole that is defined by goodness. In this sense, our yearning to love and be loved is an outgrowth of the even deeper longing to belong to the world, to experience the underlying oneness of reality.

That explains why we fear the absence of love. To be unloved, or rejected, or neglected is to be outcast from that pool of Oneness. It’s not so much the immediate pain of the rejection that hurts as the sense of being alone in the universe that is most painful. It’s been said that neglect is the worst form of abuse. Children who are neglected have a more difficult time healing than even those who were physically or sexually abused. Because at least in the latter, however horrific the experience, there is a relating – albeit distorted and immoral – to another.

Neglect is the worst form of abuse. Neglect, by contrast, communicates, “You don’t exist. At least not in my world.” And if there’s even one place where we are not truly present, then at an essential level we don’t exist at all.1 Without love, we become isolated beings randomly bumping through life. We slide into the head space that says, “The world exists independently of G‑d. Thus all things are existentially detached. I am alone.”

It is precisely this delusion that we are born to negate. We come into a world of plurality and our souls’ mission is to peel the façade, pull back the curtain of cosmic amnesia, and reveal that all is One. In this sense, love lies at the core of purpose.

That’s also why we’re afraid to give and receive it. In all arenas of life, we tend to recoil from the most important things because at least then, we can say, “I haven’t gone there yet.” Regardless of whether it’s procrastinating before sitting down to write an essay, taking on jobs that form a comfortable partition between us and what we’re really supposed to be doing, avoiding resolving a conflict that lies at the heart of our lives and the like, we are creating smokescreens that protect us from potential failure. Sure, we complain about not having the time or head space to really tackle what matters most. But that’s a ruse. Deep down, avoiding our key tasks cuts us the psychic slack of being able to tell ourselves that we haven’t yet undertaken the mission so there’s still hope.

If we want a shot at robust loving relationships, we need to understand that our yearning for connection can take on one of two faces. The first is holy and generates true bonding. The latter looks like connection but brings only separation and pain in its wake. The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers presents two such instances:

A love that is dependent on something – when the thing comes to an end, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything will never cease. Which is a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one which is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Jonathan.

The stories that are being alluded to here are Biblical.

Amnon and Tamar were half siblings of royal lineage. “Amnon lusted to the point of illness for his sister Tamar…He overpowered her and violated her.”2 He acted out of selfish desire even at the expense of another person’s most intimate life. His own craving allowed him to lose sight of Tamar as a whole person and see her as a mere object whose purpose was to satisfy him. “Afterward, Amnon despised her with a great hatred. His hatred was even greater than the love he had felt for her.”3

The second story is also about a prince. Jonathon was heir to the throne of his father Saul. David, also born of royal lineage, was the paragon of “underdog.” Rejected throughout his youth, he was nonetheless to rise in stature, ultimately assuming the throne. The two became great friends. When we can no longer tolerate our failings, we fling them out onto others. Saul, perceiving the radical David as a threat to not only his own position but Judaism as a whole, attempted to have him killed. One would expect Jonathan to be filled with the same animosity. Yet counter intuitively he was the one who stood by his friend, saving his life and even compromising his own relationship with his father. In direct contrast to Amnon, Jonathan acted out of selflessness even at his own expense.

In the case of Amnon and Tamar the love, being based on something, disappeared once Amnon got what he wanted. At a deeper level, because it was founded on an external criterion, it was not real to begin with. Certainly Amnon turned on Tamar largely as a projection of his own self-hatred and shame over the despicable act. When we can no longer tolerate our failings, we fling them out onto others. But he also hated her because the “love” was not love!

What he felt was really the need to feed his own ego. His hunger for connection wasn’t about wanting to bond with another. Quite the contrary, he translated a craving for existential unity into one for physical pleasure.

We all do it at some level, albeit far removed from Amnon’s conduct. Instead of taking the time and being prepared to do the soul-work entailed in setting aside the ego – the figment that we exist independently – we settle for surface quick-fixes that momentarily assuage our deep existential yearnings. Such an interaction can never truly fill our need. True love is about discovering the unity that constitutes existence. Rape is about separation. The interaction itself cries out, “I am alone and you are alone. There is no center, no G‑d and no meaning.”

Apropos David and Jonathan by contrast, we find the exact opposite: a relationship born of all the ingredients for rivalry, hatred and separation became one of supra-rational love and connection. That is the most satisfying love of all. When we overcome conflict in a relationship, we mirror something of the love between these two friends. This love proclaims, “We have triumphed over the appearance of separation. Despite all that the world would seem to say, love and oneness pervade reality. We are part of that. More so, we are the catalysts who make it possible to know that truth!” When we give and receive healthy love, we experience something of redemption. Even more so, we actually hasten its coming.

All that we’ve said that applies with regard to humanistic love and our interpersonal relationships has an application to love of G‑d. Maimonides tells us that we are to love and serve G‑d independently of what we might hope to gain or lose from that. Put heaven and hell aside, for service of G‑d is not about the reward or punishment. It’s not even about becoming an enlightened, refined human being!

When we give and receive healthy love, we experience something of redemption. Sometimes we’re called upon to do things that run counter to what we think would enhance our spiritual wellbeing. We’re required to put aside the texts, the prayer book, interrupt the meditation for example, and go out and help a person in need. Regardless of the situation, Maimonides prompts us to let it all go and enter into a relationship with G‑d that is like white light. In that glow, we are not motivated by the colors of the rainbow but by the simple, undifferentiated, pure desire to be one with our Creator.

It may seem like a goal that is beyond our reach but the mystics teach us that through loving others, we will come to love G‑d. A story is told about a Rabbi who asked the Chassidic Rebbe Reb Avraham of Stretyn to give him the means to be G‑d fearing.

“I hear your spiritual remedies bring results,” he said.

Reb Avraham responded, “I don’t have a remedy for fear of Heaven but I do for love of G‑d.”

“Fine,” said the Rabbi. “Isn’t love greater than fear?”

“The remedy for love of heaven,” said the Rebbe, “is love of one’s fellow. When you attain this, you will have attained the love of Heaven.”

Why so? It all comes down to the same point. Our purpose is to love to the point that we discover unity. If we can do that even in the context of human relationships within this physical world that hides G‑d, we have certainly arrived at Divine love too.

Each of us holds an infinite wellspring of love to give and all the ability to receive and take it in. We can generate the kind of connections with others that we crave, both human and Divine. We need only to have the courage to delay gratification and go for the deep, real version. That kind of love expands the universe, allowing us to feel its infinite vastness. It also collapses reality into one indivisible point that contains the whole and where all of us are imbued with the pleasure and glow of life as it’s meant to be.


1. This explains why our sages say that embarrassing someone is akin to murder. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that at most it obliterates the recipient of the shame from the inflictor’s perspective? However, if I think so little of you as to nullify your value by embarrassing you, I’m saying you don’t exist for me. And if you don’t exist in my world, your presence in the universe as a whole is not only compromised – somewhere it is negated entirely.

2. Shmuel ll, 13:2;14

3. Shmuel ll, 13:15-16

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Seven Habits of Transformation

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Sefirat Haomer, Introduction

By Shimona Tzukernik

You shall count seven full weeks for yourselves from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering. Count fifty days until the day following the seventh week.

Leviticus 23:15-16

I know a guy who’s an alcoholic in recovery. He once told me a piece of his story that’s stuck with me nine years down the line.

He said, “I initially struggled with the fact that as a nation we left Egypt to receive the Torah. Passover is about being freed from servitude. But seven weeks later – we received the Torah. We had just ran away from a life of rules and restrictions and now we were welcoming rules and restrictions! It was like out of the frying pan and into the fire!

But then I got it.

I remembered my first AA meeting. I’d reached bottom. I mean bottom! With nowhere to go and my life in ruins, I made it to a meeting.

It was out of the frying pan and into the fireThe first step states that we’re powerless over alcohol. I didn’t want to admit it but I already knew it. That’s why I was there. But that truth felt like death. What was I going to do with the knowledge? Then the topic turned to the step the meeting was dealing with, number two. It states that a Higher Power can restore us to sanity. In that moment I knew there was hope, however distant. For me, it was Gd or the bottle. Either booze would run my life or I could turn it over to a Being who was greater than me and who could bring true healing into my life, if I could open myself to that Presence.

And that’s how I related to the connection between Passover and Shavuot – the Exodus and the Giving of the Torah. I’d known for some time already about being a slave to the bottle. And I knew that the concept of slavery applied to all our vices and desires.

I can be a slave to the world. Or – I can allow my Creator into my life. At an even deeper level, I realized that my truest self is aligned with Gd’s blueprint for creation. So when I give myself over to the Divine will, I’m giving fullest expression to my deepest self. That’s freedom – even if it entails denying my body or ego the instant gratification it desires. That’s why we leave Egypt – servitude to others – and less than two months later give ourselves over to Gd.”

That’s his story. The way he tied the two holidays together was visceral and visual. It gets to the core of what the interim days between the two holidays are. Passover and Shavuot are respectively the point of departure and destination of a journey. The forty-nine days in-between are the path we follow to reach the goal. The journey is comprised of seven full weeks which the Giving of the Torah comes to crown on the fiftieth. Each week offers us an opportunity to work on a different aspect of our being as we cleanse and ready ourselves for Divine Revelation. Together they comprise the mitzvah of counting the Omer.

So I thought that for the next couple of weeks we’d go on the journey together, exploring the call of the hour.

But first, we need to get a hold on the manner of service in general.

The Biblical verse that delineates the commandment reads as follows:

“You shall count seven full weeks for yourselves from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering. Count fifty days until the day following the seventh week.”1

If we unstitch it, the first of these two verses is puzzling.

First off, why do we need to be told to “count for (ourselves)? Is there another way to count? This phraseology is not a one-off deal. We find the term “for yourselves” mentioned in relation to other commandments. There however it seems to make sense. For example, when the Torah tells us to take and shake the four species on the holiday of Sukkot, it says “Take (the four species) for yourselves.” The implication here is that you actually have to own the fruits and plants you’re holding. Or if you don’t own them, at least be given them as a gift.2 The meaning of “for yourselves” then is “from that which is yours.”

There’s another example. Sukkot lasts for seven days. The eighth day is a holiday unto itself. Gd tells us, “The eighth day must be a gathering for you.” Here the explanation is that the seven days of Sukkot are dedicated to all mankind. We offer up seventy sacrifices over the course of the holiday in correspondence with the seventy collective nations. Then comes Shemini Atzeret, the Eighth Day Gathering. This was a time for the Jewish people to engage in a more intimate experience with the Creator in celebration not of the universal but the personal. So here the meaning of “you” is “just for you.”

So what does “for yourselves” imply with regard to the counting? Actually, there’s yet another verse which gives some insight. On the obligation to count the Jubilee cycle of fifty years, the Torah instructs, “Count seven sabbatical years for yourself.” Noting the difference between the singular and plural pronouns with regard to counting the years of the Jubilee and the weeks of Sefirat HaOmer respectively, the Talmud3 makes the following distinction: The Jubilee years can be counted by one individual on behalf of all the people. But the weeks of the Omer must be counted by each one alone.

This then is the legal implication. Each of us has to stand in prayer each night for forty nine consecutive nights and articulate where we’re at in the journey.

However, all levels of Torah are part of one totality. That means that the legal and mystical must mesh. What is it about the counting of the Omer that we have to each do it alone?

A second thread in the reading is the wave offering. It was a sacrifice of roasted and ground barley that had to be lifted up and physically waved back and forth by the priest. Why was the lifting and waving necessary?

The next, and glaring, question is why we’re told to count from the day following Shabbat. The reference here is to Passover. It was from the night after the exodus that we began counting in anticipation of the Revelation at Sinai. We walked out from Egypt on a Thursday at noon. Obviously then, the first ever counting of the Omer happened on a Thursday night. Why then does the Torah use the word “Shabbat” rather than say, “Count from the night after Passover?”

And finally, what’s the import of “seven full weeks?” Either you count for six weeks and say one, two, six, however many days – or if its six weeks and seven days, then you’re counting for seven weeks. How on earth could you have seven incomplete weeks?!

The answers lie in an understanding of the spiritual landscape of who we are. Each of us has a higher and lower self. We could even define that as a false and true self. The former is animalistic in the sense that it behaves according to instinct. Our animal lives are lived reactively. At this level we certainly have the components of mind and heart but the animal mind is very limited. The animal within is primarily emotive and what intellect it has merely serves to fulfill our passions and justify our irrational egoistic beliefs.

The human self, by contrast, is primarily intellective. Emotions at this level are generated by thought. Holy thought is a kind of chiropractic adjustment for the soul: think right, feel right, do right follow each other in a domino effect. Here the heart serves the mind. It serves as a means of expression for our true identity.

With this in mind, we can now address the questions raised by the verse:

The deep purpose of counting the Omer is to shine the soul in preparation for the Revelation at Sinai. The Hebrew word for “count” reads usfartem. In Hebrew, the letters “f” and “p” are interchangeable. So safir, “count”, can be re-vocalized as sapir, which is related to the word “sapphire.” Gd is telling us, “Make yourselves luminous. Become clear and glowing like a sapphire stone.”

In actual terms what that means is that we have to take our animal soul and refine it. We have to deal, week by week, with base emotions and impulses, elevating and transforming them for a Higher purpose.

This end-goal is alluded to by the elevation of the barley offering. Whereas wheat is a food traditionally associated with human consumption, barley is a grain primarily associated with animals. The offering required that young ears of barley, still moist, be dried by fire and then ground, and sifted thirteen times before being lifted to Gd as an offering.

Taking the barley as a visual metaphor for our animal souls, we’re being asked to take the juice of our desires and burn that into steam that drives our connection with the Divine. We burn it through fire, through the challenging discipline of restraint and respect for boundaries. Then we grind it. In other words, we sublimate the ego. Still not done, next comes the service of repeatedly sifting through our being, eliminating impurities. And finally, we elevate our inner animal.

The goal of Judaism is not to reject any dimension of self. Whatever we’ve been given is meant to be used in the service of Gd. Our most physical and base existence must proclaim that in truth there is no barrier between the highest and lowest realm of creation.

In order to do that, we have to inspire ourselves and allow our Gdly essence to shine forth. It’s always there but being enclothed within the body and dunked in a physical realm, this inner point fades. We lose access to it as we go about our lives. Sefirat HaOmer is a full seven weeks devoted to recalling to consciousness this innermost point.

This is the meaning of the word lachem, “for yourselves.” Our lachem, our true self, is this essential Gdly soul. We’re given the mission of making it glow with awareness and clarity so as to be able to tackle the grand task of elevating the animalistic self we live with on a day to day basis.

It’s a lofty, lovely sounding goal. But how are we to do it?

The answer is Shabbat. In Hebrew the word Shabbat is etymologically related to the word lishbot which means “to rest.” Gd’s message is, “If you want to have a shot at elevating your baser nature, you’ll have to rest a little from worldly conduct.” In other words, if you’re enmeshed with public opinion, making money, gratifying your desires and so on and so on, then you’ll have a tough time of rising above it all. The way to transcend those limitations is to abstain, to take a rest from the obsessions and pursuits that distract us from the real purpose of our being here.

Then we’re guaranteed: If you do this, you’ll be whole. You’ll have “seven full weeks” under your belt and be able to live life as it was intended. You won’t have to discard any aspect of your being. The animal will still be there but having empowered your true self, you’ll be able to inspire and refine the more base aspects of who you are. You’ll be a fitting vessel to receive Divine revelation and you’ll discover that finally, you’re truly free.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring how that’s done step by step. Until then, light and joy to you and yours.

1. Leviticus 23:15-16

2.The gift is given on condition that it will be returned to the original owner. But nonetheless at the moment the recipient holds it and says the blessing, she or he owns it.

3. Menachot 65:2

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