Counting the 11th day of the Omer: the discipline that leads to liberation

Tonight the Universe will invite us to double down on our discipline and commitment to dedicating ourselves to following through on our journey to be true to ourselves regardless of the cost. Tonight will begin the 11th day of the Omer, which is the 11th day between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot.

The process of counting the Omer has deep mystical significance in Judaism, and is one of the many spiritual practices that the rabbis have instituted to help us in our own spiritual journey, as we seek to take ancient and often seemingly meaningless traditions (such as the biblical agricultural commandments) and apply them to our own lives and circumstances.

Fundamentally, Judaism is a religion of adaptation, and teaches principles that can help us to adapt to the changing circumstances of our own world. We call ourselves “wandering Arameans” and embrace all those who have been cast aside by mainstream society, because of our belief that the spark of G!d is in each of us… and the most wounded and despised are often those with the brightest Lights that our world needs. This countercultural approach to life has earned us many enemies, but the deep lessons of survival that are embedded in our traditions reflect wisdom that has great value in our own day.

In many ways, the most spiritually powerful Jewish practices are the ones that are the most important but the least observed, such as the counting of the Omer. And in other ways, the most widely celebrated and known holidays (such as Hanukkah) are often the most misunderstood and the least valuable. This reflects deeper problems with the ways in which idolatry manifests in organized religion, and is worthy of a separate post unto itself (or as the medieval rabbis would say: Hamayveen Yaveen- “those who understand will get it”).

Truthfully this concept speaks to a deeper Truth: the ways in which we must first embrace our inner knowing before we study that which came before us. Religion is often taught to us as a set of rules or beliefs to which we are taught to adhere. This is the great tragedy of organized religion, as it bastardizes that which is meant to emerge from the heart and soul. The rituals are meant to be vehicles of expression that can help us to grow and heal, but unfortunately, instead they are used in ways that are less than healthy by those who see religion as a convenient weapon.

Judaism is a religion that has always been maligned, and sadly, increasingly once again. There is something deeply brave to choose to practice the rituals of a group of people that are so hated. This in itself is a spiritual discipline that can teach courage. The practice of counting the Omer is a specific ritual that teaches spiritual discipline, because it requires stopping every day for 49 days, to pray and reflect on how to transform words into concrete personal changes.

Contemporary psychologists explain that 49 days is enough time to learn a new habit or unlearn an old one. The Bible notes that the number 49 corresponds to the time it takes to become free, because it is the culmination of seven sabbatical years, and leads to the fiftieth year that is “shemittah” (liberation) as it says in Leviticus 25:

Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather its fruit. And the seventh year shall be a sabbath of rest for the land, a sabbath for G‑d . . . You shall count for yourselves seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years . . . a total of forty-nine years . . . And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all its inhabitants.

Numbers have deep spiritual meaning in Judaism (learn more about Gematria here). And so it is that the practice of counting the Omer, to count the passage of time between Passover and Shavuot, is a spiritual practice that has deeply redemptive potential. And tonight, the 11th night of the Omer, is specifically dedicated to celebrating “Netzach in Gevurah” – the triumph of the Spirit through the practice of discipline.

In Jewish tradition, the number 11 corresponds to the Hebrew letter “Kaf” and speaks to the power of forgiveness and atonement that happens through Love… when we embrace the discipline that comes with learning to follow through on our promises and good intentions. It is all very well to want to change ourselves, but unless we translate our words and intentions into action, we will never progress in our own spiritual journeys.

Similarly, when we adopt a new habit or try to let go of an old one, it is often around the 11th day that we may begin to falter. Change theory and theories of recovery explain that we have to understand that we are human and fallible. Rather than responding to missteps with anger or shame, we should plan on them and embrace those moments as powerful teachers: how can we learn and continue to press forward.

The Hindu tradition explains that “yoga” (often misunderstood in the West) means “yoke” and discipline. Unlike our fantasies of liberation, true freedom is born through discipline. When we feel trapped, or when we first try out a new behavior, we will often coax ourselves forward with fantasies that are not rooted in reality. This is normal, and like all relationships, it is natural to begin with a honeymoon phase. But the true work of healing and liberation happens when we step beyond the fantasy and into reality.

Taking risks and facing the demons that kept us chained to a life that oppressed us is hard. Venturing into the unknown is scary. This is why so few people do so, and why those who muster up the courage to leave lives or relationships or behaviors that are toxic may find themselves shocked by the reactions of those who have chosen not to do the difficult work of liberating themselves. These feelings are normal parts of the process, and it is precisely when we recognize this and double down on our commitment to change, that we create new neural pathways that can propel us forward.

True liberation happens at every level. It is not possible to liberate one’s self in a compartmentalized way, because compartmentalization is a lie that society has tried to sell us so that we stay in neatly labeled boxes that are easy to control. The great Indigenous scholar Dr. Michael Yellow Bird writes about neurodecolonization as the recipe for healing and liberation. The South African activist, Bantu Stephen Biko, further taught that the most powerful weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed. Through our unconscious defense mechanisms and self-talk, we often perpetuate worse damage on ourselves than those who first wounded us.

Traditional rabbinic commentary explains that it took the Children of Israel 40 years to journey from Egypt to the Promised Land… because the physical leaving of slavery was only the beginning. It took another 40 years to unlearn the ways in which slavery had etched itself into the well-worn grooves of their brains. Contemporary scientific research supports this notion of intergenerational trauma that is passed down genetically. Spiritual practices such as the counting of the Omer are one way amongst many to begin to neurodecolonize ourselves in our own journey to true liberation.

The bible describes how the Children of Israel were liberated from slavery, and experienced the miracles that led to their escape from Mitzrayim (translated as Egypt but meaning the restrictive oppression that kept them chained)… yet they continued to struggle in their resolve along their long and painful journey toward freedom.

Many miracles appeared along the way but they still struggled. Doubt, guilt, shame, grief, painful memories, old beliefs… the well-worn grooves of our neural pathways that lead to the inherited scripts of intergenerational trauma… the fear that comes with the unknown… whatever the struggle, tonight the Universe reminds us that these struggles are normal parts of the journey, no less than muscle pain is normal for one who returns to the gym after a long absence.

On this 11th day of the Omer, we are invited to reflect upon how these dynamics manifest in our own ever evolving journey toward becoming who G!d created us to be. Every year, we are commanded to re-experience Passover and re-emerge anew, because who we were is not who we must become.

To go backwards is to choose death. Moses explained this to the Children of Israel in Deuteronomy when he reiterated G!d’s command to each of us: choose Life that you may live. We need to be reminded of this truth again and again because each year more things happen that, like gravity, can pull us away from our deepest knowing…

The pull of early trauma and the weight of intergenerational trauma and the cumulative effect of structural colonizing traumatic policies all combine to force many of us into unhealthy beliefs, patterns, behaviors, relationships and choices. The deep work of counting the Omer that the rabbis intended for the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot is reflective of the necessary stages that each of must undetertake in transitioning from slavery to freedom to revelation to redemption. These correspond to four levels of being- four dimensions, and four levels of healing and becoming.

And a necessary part of this journey is the way we weave all our best intentions with what the kabbalistic rabbis call: “gevurah” – the strength, courage, discipline and tenacity that is needed to remain true to our resolve when the glow of the miracles that light our way are covered by the clouds and storms of life. Without the resolve to keep moving forward, we will fail and die- as indeed many did in the desert, refusing to keep going or choosing to return to the leeks and onions of Egypt that they had come to miss while on their journey toward the promised land.

On this 11th day of the Omer, let us double down in our own lives… doing the necessary search and moral inventory needed to gain clarity, and push past the discomfort of the unknown to embrace the freedom that is deep within… if and when we let go of the veils of perception/blinders of denial/false inherited beliefs transmitted by intergenerational trauma and societal expectations.

Netzach means triumph. Tonight’s Omer celebrates the triumph of courage over the face of all that has been created by humanity’s ego to enslave and entrap- that which is called Mitzrayim: all that wounds, oppresses and enchains. May each of us find the courage we need to double down on our faith: our dreams and hopes… they are the fuel that will lead us to redemption.