Making Our Days Count

Once again it is time to count the omer, the forty-nine day period between Pesach and Shavuot, the latter of which is named for the seven weeks between the two festivals.  

Many customs are associated with the count and as the practice builds in popularity, new methods and tools are created.  You can use an omer counter with a scroll that turns daily to display the precise combination of days and weeks that have passed.  You can purchase or design an omer calendar (there are almost as many choices as there are hagadot) or find one on the Web.  

Traditional Olive Wood Omer Counter
Traditional Olive Wood Omer Counter

The pages of an omer calendar can include space for notes, artwork (with or without color-it-yourself charts), spiritual teachings, or pithy aphorisms. Some calendars denote the sephirot of the kabbalistic tree which assign a different spiritual quality to each day. Others list a middah  (ethical attribute) that can be developed through mindful attention on ones actions throughout the day.  Some print mishnayot, verses from Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of the Sages) for reflection. (Traditionally, one of its six chapters is studied on each of the six Shabbatot between the spring holidays.) And true to the times, there are omer counting apps you can download from the web!

The count begins on the second night of Pesach, so I’m sure I recited the omer blessing at the family seders of my youth.  But it wasn’t until an 8-day Pesach meditation retreat I attended in my late twenties that I learned of the practice and discovered its potential for spiritual transformation.  Similar to lighting the Hannukiah whose flames are supposed to be observed and not used for any other purpose, the secret of the omer practice lies in its simplicity. The recitation of the traditional blessing and count are meant to bring us into squarely into the present; no retelling of the past, no prayers for the future.  It’s just a “be here now” moment.

When former JCCSF Executive Director, Rabbi Jason Gaber z’l was battling AIDS, a story about his omer count that year was published in the Northern California Jewish Bulletin (now the j).  Jason, who had been ordained by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi a few months earlier, described it as a daily practice in making each precious day count.

Psalm 90 reads, “Let us number each day that we may gain a heart of wisdom – limnot yameynu keyn hoda v’navi levav chochma.”  Each day we count the omer we pause and simply dwell in full awareness of life’s blessings. The true wisdom, however, comes in making a daily habit of counting of our blessings and not waiting for the omer or until we’re staring face to face with our mortality.


Spiritual Community and the Generosity of “Strangers”

Ongoing acts of kindness and generosity literally turn strangers into friends and transform a random group of folks into a real community.

“We can only create and maintain community if we share both the dream and the commitment to work for its realization…Community life needs to offer the affection and support that is normally provided by extended family members living in close proximity. ” – Rabbi David A. Teutsch

After helping someone in need recently, a BIJ member told me that the line between giving and receiving had been so blurred that she did not know who had benefitted more. In response all I could say was that to know this feeling is to be truly blessed. Not long ago, I also learned of an informal gathering of BIJers who assembled spontaneously to offer healing prayers for someone who had received a difficult diagnosis. I was deeply moved at hearing this since it affirmed what I know to be true of BIJ: We are a caring congregation. The peer-led prayer circle affirmed my long-held belief in the importance of spiritual community. It further reminded me that while a leader’s role is to serve as a teacher and mentor, acts of leadership both great and small are initiated all the time by members of our community.

According to the Sages, gemilut hasadim, deeds-of-loving-kindness, is one of three categories of mitzvot that sustain the world. Whether it is by supporting a member whose child is in distress, visiting or delivering food to a fellow congregant who is ill, providing a ride to shul for a synagogue elder, comforting the bereaved, attending a shiva minyan, helping an unemployed congregant find a job, assembling and dropping off mishloach manot on Purim or delivering seder sacks on Passover, hundreds of mitzvot are performed at BIJ every day.

These ongoing acts of kindness and generosity literally turn strangers into friends and transform a random group of folks into a real community.

The list of tasks required to run a congregation far exceeds the number of available staff hours. Whether serving on the Board or a committee, helping with administrative duties in the office, planning and organizing special events and programs, greeting fellow congregants and visitors at services, preparing and serving an oneg Shabbat, kiddush or meal, washing table cloths or kitchen towels, selling coffee and bagels at the Micha Mocha café, chanting Torah or haftarah on Shabbat or holidays, setting and cleaning up before and after shul events, kashering the kitchen for Pesach, planting shrubs and new seedlings in our garden, repairing broken or damaged furniture and fixtures, BIJ depends on our volunteers.

The Torah describes a ‘volunteer’ as one who is nediv lev, moved by the heart. The term first appears in Exodus, parashat Vayakheil, during the building of the mishkan (tabernacle) where a call for contributions is answered to such excess that a moratorium on giving is declared. While BIJ has never faced this happy dilemma, our community exists only because our members are continuously moved to give of their resources, time and talent and by so doing have built a spiritual home that this far greater than our numbers betray. At BIJ members feel a true sense of belonging and our palpable warmth and hospitality is what makes our community attractive to potential members and guests.

Thank you for all you do and give to sustain our spiritual home. The generous offerings of the heart that each of you brings to our congregation are appreciated far more than these words can adequately express.


WE WON!  Celebrating the Prop 8 Court Decision

WE WON!  Celebrating the Prop 8 Court Decision in San Francisco’s Castro District,  Wednesday August 4, 2010.  I am in the middle with Margee Churchon of the Jewish Community Relations Council on my right, Rachel Biale and Susan Lubeck from the Progressive Jewish Alliance on my left, Rabbi David Cooper of Kehilla Community Synagogue and Marilyn Golden, Policy analyist Disabled Rights and Defense Fund in front of me.  After the Rally, we marched down Market Street to Civic Center and continued with speeches from local constituents and officials on the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall.   A small but significant step along the path to full equality for all, and despite the cold summer weather, it truly was a glorious day.  Hooray for liberty and justice.  Today I am especially proud to be an American!

More Jews for Equality!  Here I am with Eileen Blumenthal at the Prop 8 Rally in front of SF City Hall
More Jews for Equality! Here I am with Eileen Blumenthal at the Prop 8 Rally in front of SF City Hall

Thanks David!

Todah Rabbah David Morgenstern for being my web whiz and for getting this blog going!  David has his own wordpress blog called kavvanotes. Check it out!

Update: David’s sudden death early in the morning May 4, 2015 / 15 Iyar, 5775 has left a deep hole in my heart. My Cantorial Soloist for my entire tenure at BIJ (filling in and then taking the role for himself), musical partner on the pulpit and educational collaborator he was a truly amazing friend and colleague. I can only offer words of condolence and comfort to his wife Inara, daughter Ariela (Marc), brother Jamie (Linda), sister Ann (Jeffrey), nieces Dara and Rebecca the extended Morgenstern Family, his Friends and Community.  Funeral services were held on Wednesday, May 6 at Beth Israel Judea in San Francisco. We will miss your kindness, brilliance and gorgeous voice. You can never be replaced!

David Morgenstern, A man of many talents!
David Morgenstern, A man of many talents! Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, Hanukkah 5770