If you’d like to view the video from the class about Lag B’Omer that was given on Tuesday for the Blake Street Hebrew Congregation, here it is!
Parashat Emor 5780
This week’s parashah features the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer in which we are engaged in this season. The mitzvah itself is just to count cumulatively, every day, out loud, the days and weeks starting from the day after Pesach until Shavuot. No rationale for this counting is given in the Torah. But the kabbalistic tradition has overlaid an elaborate devotional practice on this mitzvah, including a liturgical text included in most siddurim, that declares a kavanah, an intention for the counting and characterizes this mitzvah as a tikkun, a repair or improvement of the soul:
Master of the world, You have commanded by Moshe Your servant to count the counting of the Omer in order to purify us from our externalities and impurities… in order that the souls of Your people Israel be purified from their contamination… Therefore may it be Your Will… that by the merit of the counting of the Omer that I count today, that which I have blemished in the Sefirah so-and-so be repaired, and I be purified and sanctified in supernal sanctity, and by this may the flow of divine blessings flow abundantly in all the worlds, to repair our higher souls, our spirits and our animating souls from all dross and blemish, to purify us and sanctify us in Your supernal sanctity.
The mechanism is that each of the seven weeks of the counting period is assigned a Sefirah, a quality of divine revelation from among the seven moral Sefirot, and each day within the week is assigned a Sefirah from among the same set of Sefirot in the same order. So every day’s count refers to a different combination of a Sefirah within a Sefirah, and by the end of the process every permutation is covered in order. These Sefirot are qualities of divine revelation, but they are also human moral qualities – we are created in the image of God. According to this kabbalistic interpretation, by this way of counting the Omer we are mending mistakes we have made that have blemished our moral qualities. But what does it mean to blemish a Sefirah? And how does the counting and the stated intention with its reference to Sefirot within Sefirot accomplish tikkun ha-neshamah, mending of our souls and a cosmic repair as well?
Classical Kabbalah speaks of ten different Sefirot, ten diverse categories of attributes by which God the Infinite is revealed through Creation and its continuing guidance. Three of the Sefirot are cognitive, seven are moral qualities. Even so, it is a fundamental principle that these seemingly diverse qualities are in truth all unified revelations God Who is One and Infinite. The kabbalists convey this unity through a model of the Sefirot that regards each Sefirah as containing all other Sefirot, and each of those Sefirot containing all Sefirot, and so on, a model that expresses endless harmony and unity. On the human level, in kabbalistic terms, a transgression is defined as an action that harms the unified harmony of Sefirot by exaggerating or weakening one Sefirah, one moral quality, in relation to all the others. Some transgressions are a result of excessive love or desire without proper boundaries, some from lack of love. Some are a result of excessive judgment and divisiveness, others from injustice or lack of judicious discernment. Some transgressions come from lack of balance in our lives, and some from lack of flexibility. Some are the result of being too forward, some from being too timid. Some are a result of lack of proper discipline, some from too much discipline. Some transgressions result from lack of control of our creative drives, and some from improper actions. And these are just broad categories, with many, many subsets that combine all these qualities in different permutations. Moral health is understood as the harmonious balance of all our moral qualities together.
This model of a system that is self-similar at multiple scales of magnitude can be nicely conceptualized in terms of fractal geometry. And it exhibits some of the real-world properties of fractals. Architects, material and structural engineers, sound engineers and electronic engineers, and researchers in many other applied scientific fields are studying the ubiquitous fractal structures of the natural world to learn how to fill space in more dense, internally supportive yet flexible ways, to create stronger, more resilient and more effective building materials. Biologists and ecologists and sociologists study fractals in nature to understand how to promote more robust, harmoniously diverse and resilient ecosystems or social systems. In a similar way, Rabbi Hayyim Vital in Etz Hayyim defines tikkun as adjustment that furthers the mutual support, internal harmony and unification of the Sefirot, on all levels of spiritual magnitude, granting flexible endurance to the structure of God’s world (2:4:11:5).
So, too, on the personal level, moral and spiritual and even physical health is understood as the harmonious unification of all our diverse qualities, each working in support of all others. The mitzvah of Sefirat haOmer as interpreted kabbalistically is a way of training ourselves, day by day, to integrate all aspects of our personality into a healthy whole that is robust and resilient and actualizes our full, God-given and God-guided human potential. Each day of the Sefirah season we can reflect on different combinations and interactions of our moral qualities that are represented thematically in the combined count of the day and week and make adjustments, tikkunim, in our attitudes and our behavior as we progress through the period.
Tikkun in this sense of harmonious integration of diversity also applies to the community. Rav Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Mandate Period, working to help integrate the Jews arriving in Israel with the Aliyah movements of his time into a cohesive society, understood that every Jewish man and woman has a unique and necessary contribution to make to the revival of the nation of Israel in the Land of Israel. He urged his fellow Jews to appreciate and celebrate each other’s political and religious diversity as necessary to building a robust, full-functioning society (Orot, 121-123). It’s still a work in progress. But the desire of most Israelis for a unity government, however rickety, embracing a broad political spectrum, to help face the challenges of this time, is a sign of health. One of the great lessons of this dangerous period the world is going through, if we can learn it, is that we need all hands on deck, to support each other, care for each other, and work together in harmony, with HaShem’s help, to heal this world that so desperately needs Tikkun.