Between Passover and Shavuot: Counting the Omer and Becoming Free

Traditional Rabbinic Commentary has determined that the period of time between Passover and Shavuot is a time of deep spiritual growth, learning and healing. Passover commemorates the passage of the Children of Israel from ancient Egyptian slavery, while Shavuot commemorates the experience of revelation on Mount Sinai. Both of these festivals are not based solely upon ancient historic events, but are supposed to be applicable to our own journey as well. We are commanded to observe rituals in order to help us to feel, viscerally, our own path from bondage to freedom.

On Passover, each person is commanded to experience the season as if it were WE, ourselves, who were liberated from Mitzrayim (translated as Egypt, but literally the narrow, restrictive and oppressive spaces in our own lives). The rituals such as eating unleavened bread and horseradish are just some of the many physical activities designated to help us begin to feel this truth in our bodies, not just in our heads.

Many might suggest that the first step to freedom in general is to feel one’s self as free in our bodies, not only our minds. Dr. van der Kolk writes powerfully in his groundbreaking book “The Body Keeps the Score” how experiences of trauma are not easily healed. The rabbis recognized this truth in their explanation of the reason that it took 40 years for the Children of Israel to travel from Ancient Egypt back to the Promised Land… it was an important step in liberation. While Passover commemorates the leaving of Mitzrayim, on a physical level, it would take much longer to be liberated from the internalized bondage that remained deeply imprinted upon the bodies and psyches of those who had been enslaved and oppressed.

For many of us as well, past trauma may continue to haunt us in our bodies, minds, hearts and spirits. We may live with an internalized Pharoah (the rabbis explain that the Hebrew word can be read as “peh ra” which literally means “evil tongue”. How often do we make a mistake and blamed ourselves? Sometimes the most abusive person we can live with is ourselves. Even if we work on becoming kinder to ourselves, we may still carry within us the remnants of trauma through inherited narrative scripts- the ways in which our unconscious continues to push us into the same unhealthy patterns over and over and over again.

It is therefore critical that we understand that the festival of freedom is not a one-time event. Rather, it is a step by step journey. We begin by understanding from whence we come and the ways we carry that trauma with us, and then we continue the journey to healing through learning, healing, integrating, releasing those memories and patterns that cause us harm and unlearning the beliefs and habits that chain us to our past.

The rabbis teach that the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot are a time to undertake this healing, and that we should work on this, not just once, but each year. No matter our best efforts, we often find ourselves recreating old scripts. The healing that is needed is deep, and this season is uniquely suited to support us in this spiritual task. The period of time in between these two powerfully transformative events (Passover/Exodus from slavery and Shavuot/Revelation at Mount Sinai) has been determined to be a time of spiritual transition- not only reflective of the journey undertaken during biblical times, but also reflective of the journey that each of us must undertake in our own days.

There are many ways that we can observe and sanctify this sacred time, which the rabbis call “counting the Omer” as a way of honoring the land-based teachings at the foundation of the biblical religion that is the ancestor to both Judaism and Christianity as we now understand it. The Kabbalistic traditions of Judaism explain that it is important for each of us to utilize this time period for our own spiritual healing. Counting the Omer is a way to re-member ourselves and heal ourselves, and in the process, this universe within which we live.

Every night between the second night of Passover and Shavuot, Jews are commanded to count the Omer, and measure the passage of time in an active manner. In what ways does our passage through this world and through this life lead us toward freedom or return us to the same oppressive patterns that we state we wish to leave? Contemporary therapists remind us of the same wisdom that the rabbis of Jewish tradition sought to teach: becoming free is not simply a physical experience. We must reflect upon the ways that we have internalized that which once wounded or oppressed us.

The spiritual and kabbalistic practices involved in the counting of the Omer remind us of the importance of equilibrium and balance. Trauma can throw us off and it is important to stop, breathe, reflect and recalibrate ourselves. When we find ourselves struggling, we must ask ourselves: are we reacting to a current trauma or an echo of an older trauma? In what ways do we prioritize in our mind and in our lives the spiritual nourishment and joy that our souls need?

Just as the Children of Israel depended upon manna throughout their journeys, so do we depend upon the blessings that show up in our daily activities. This is the nourishment that can sustain us in our own journey to healing. The first task to healing and preparing for revelation is to be open to the ways that the universe seeks to nourish us… what can we learn? how can it heal us? the practice of gratitude is essential as we embark upon this period of unlearning and healing…

May each of us take the time we need to tend to the ways our souls are aching to grow and evolve into who we were created to become… may Revelation guide us in our journeys.