Torah of Awakening
וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמׇּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃
You shall count from the day after the Sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation, seven Sabbaths; they must be complete…
- Vayikra (Leviticus) 23:15
In the supermarket, there are eggs and chickens that are labeled “cage free,” implying that they aren’t confined to tiny little cages as are most commercial chickens, but are instead happily running around a vast outdoor space. Unfortunately, “cage-free” doesn’t really mean cage-free at all. It means that for a certain portion of the day, the doors on the cages are opened so that the chickens can escape if they want to. Only, they don’t; the chickens always choose to stay in their cages. (If you want chickens that actually walk around the farm, I think you have to buy “pastured” eggs and chickens.)
Why don’t the chickens leave their little cages when the doors are opened?
Because they are conditioned to be in their cages; they don’t realize they can leave. Perhaps, if they had more time, their instinct for freedom would eventually lead them to discover the opening. But, the doors aren’t open long enough for that; they’re only open long enough for the company to be able to legally label their product as “cage-free.”
And, it’s the same with us. At the seder, there is a song in which we label ourselves as free: Avadim hayinu, ata b’nai khorin – we were slaves, now we are free. But are we free? The “cage door” is actually always already open, ready for us to step through. But can we see that? Like the chickens, we only step through if we have the time to discover that open door, if we have the time for that impulse for freedom to grow within.
אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל – “I have heard the cries of the Children of Israel…” It was only after the suffering of the Israelites had become ripe that they were ready for freedom, that God “heard their cries.” We too need to let ourselves ripen, so we can come to “see” our own suffering, so that we may recognize – we are the seeing; we are not trapped. And once the time is ripe, this recognition takes only an instant.
But then, after this recognition, we need more time to walk through the door and discover how to roam the “farm,” to explore the wild terrain of the uncharted midbar, rather than return to the security of the cage. In other words, we need to discover how to live our freedom. But like the Israelites, the tendency is to revert, to backslide:
הֲֽמִבְּלִ֤י אֵין־קְבָרִים֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם לְקַחְתָּ֖נוּ לָמ֣וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר –“Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” - Shemot (Exodus) 14:11
So, the journey of awakening has an aspect that takes takes no time at all, that takes only an instant to realize: the cage door is open. But, leading up to that moment, it takes time for awareness to ripen – to disentangle itself from its identifications for long enough to be able to see that this is the case. This is the whole point of sitting in meditation; in the stillness, awareness can, in time, shift and recognize its own freedom from the “cage.” The “cage” is made from the patterns of our thoughts and feelings; it is our identity. But, the open space is our awareness. It is the field of consciousness, within which our experience in this moment is now appearing.
Everything within our experience arises from and falls back into this open space, including the cage of thoughts and feelings. In truth, it is not that we must go out into the open space, we are the open space. By taking time to disengage from the activity of thought and feeling, we can recognize – we are awareness; we are already free. In that recognition we can say with sincerity, avadim hayinu, we thought were slaves, but now, ata b’nai khorin – now we realize that we are actually free.
לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכֹּ֗ר אֶת־י֤וֹם צֵֽאתְךָ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֥י חַיֶּֽיךָ – so that you may remember the day you went out from Egypt all the days of your life. - Devarim (Deuteronomy) 16:3
But, to then go and live that freedom, to not only see the open door, to not only see the unboundedness beyond the cage, but to step out and live as if that freedom is true, that is an ongoing process. It is not the hurried “going out from Egypt,” when there is no time to let the dough rise. The matzah is that instant realization that happens when the time is ripe – direct connection with the simplicity of the moment, before the “yeast bubbles” cause separation between “me” and the world. But this second, time-bound aspect requires living into this question: how may we translate the freedom that we are into words and deeds, into a way of living?
The Sefirat HaOmer is a prompt to that question. As we count each of the 49 days between Pesakh and Shavuot, we walk the path from liberation to revelation – from the instantaneous realization of freedom (Pesakh) to the long-term project of living that freedom (Shavuot). The Sefirat HaOmer gives us a map of seven times seven spiritual qualities:
Hesed – “Lovingkindness” – are you motivated by love? What about when something that doesn’t feel loving happens to you? Can you be a warrior of the love motivation, or do you become a victim? Life has plenty of the opposite of love in it. But living freedom means choosing to live from love, even when external and even internal forces are pushing you in other directions.
Which brings us to Gevurah – “Strength.” In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma says, Ezehu gibor? Who is strong? Who has Gevurah? Hakoveish yitzro – one who masters their own motivation. Because then you’re not tossed around by circumstances – then you can radiate gracefulness, equanimity. And that’s the third quality: Tiferet – “Grace, Beauty.” Through this inner balancing, you can be victorious over the powers of time and change, knowing HaMakom, the Eternal Space within which everything is happening, and knowing yourself as that Space. That is Netzakh, which means Victory, but also Eternity.
And from that rootedness in the Eternal, arises a gratitude for the ever-present simple blessings, a humble gratitude for the simple privilege just to be. That is Hod, which means Gratitude and Humility. And out of the positive vibration of this simple humility and gratitude arises the pleasure of connection – the Eros, the joy of living, of communing with the Presence as it manifests in this moment. That’s Yesod, which means Foundation, because the enjoyment of life is the foundation of life. If you can’t enjoy, then all the richness of meaning and value will slowly drain away.
But with that joy, there can also arise a deep sense of Presence in the body, on this earth, of trusting the process, of trusting that Reality has its own endgame, in a sense. That is Malkhut, “Kingdom,” pointing to the idea that all Reality is really a Divine “Kingdom/Queendom,” and that the union of “King” and “Queen,” of Kudsha Brikh Hu Ushekhintei, the Holy Transcendent Space with the Imminent Presence, happens through us, through our Pesakh realization and our Shavuot application, through our counting of the qualities and bringing them into being in our own lives, day after day, each day anew.
There is a story that a disciple of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev came to the master and asked: “In the Talmud it says that a tzaddik, a perfect person, can’t stand in the place of the Ba’al T’shuvah, one who was wicked but who has turned to the Divine and transformed. According to this, one who has been blameless from youth is at a lower level than one who has done many misdeeds. How can this be?”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak replied, “A person who perceives a new light every day, light that wasn’t perceived the day before, must leave behind the way they lived in the past, and start afresh to embody the new light. The blameless ones who believe they are already perfect don’t perceive the new light, and so there is no transformation.”
May the counting of the Omer remind us to constantly open ourselves to a new light every day, to find a fresh path for embodying the freedom that we are…
Read past teachings on HaOmer HERE.
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