It was only after many years of Counting the Omer that I came to understand it as a “mindfulness” practice that leads us on a journey of discovery, helping us pay attention, to focus on the moment and be aware of the passing of each day.
Several years beyond that, I began to appreciate what the culmination of the journey at Shavuot could mean for spiritual practice.
In ancient times, Counting the Omer was an agricultural ritual during which, each night for 49 days, farmers would go out into the fields and wave an omer, a sheaf of barley, to pray for a good harvest. Over time, that ritual was replaced by liturgy: Counting became the way to mark the Israelites’ journey from bondage in Egypt to revelation at Mount Sinai where they experienced, for a single moment, the mystery we call God.
Shavuot urges us to engage our imagination, to cultivate awe. It also calls us to listen for the Ten Devarim (“10 utterances,” not “commandments,” as named in the Torah) and consider their meaning in our lives.
As the tradition teaches, at the end of the 49th day, the Israelites camped below the mountain and prepared to encounter the One. In thunder, lightning and in a deafening silence, the One Source of All revealed wisdom that would guide them in living in reverent relationship with each other and with the mysterious unfolding of all life.
On Shavuot, we listen to the story that our ancestors tell and ask that it inspire our imagination and courage:
It was before dawn.
The air was cold and the sky deep blue
When all of us awoke.
Together we walked slowly toward the mountain.
The ground trembled.
The mountain began to smoke.
Lightning flashed. Thunder roared.
A shofar called from the depths of the earth.
Then all was still.
And into the core of our being
Within our heart, our soul, on the lines of our faces
The One spoke
And everything vanished.
There was no I, no you, no tree, no bird, no water, no fire.
There was only One.
Then the shofar wailed again
And the world in all its uniqueness rushed back
Bird, wind, rock, sky
And we stood with the One breath still on our lips
And we knew —
The One inside the many
The One beyond anything that can be known
And we trembled in awe.
We stepped back from the mountain
We turned from the fire
And we listened to the One reverberate in our hearts
And in the silence we heard the Mystery call:
1. I am the unfolding of all that is. I am the power of transformation calling you forward to be.
2. You cannot arrest me in motion. Do not strive for certainty. Do not seek permanence.
3. Do not use my name in the pursuit of violence, terror or destruction
4. Rest, Stop, Pause. Be. Honor creation. Declare your freedom. Rest and allow others to rest as well.
5. Honor your parents. Honor your ancestors. Honor those upon whose shoulders you stand.
6. Do not murder.
7. Do not betray.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not use the power of words to hurt or destroy.
10. Feel the fullness of your life. Don’t be led astray by comparing yourself to others. Don’t get lost in desiring what others have. Be content, be fulfilled with what your life brings.
On Shavuot, whether it is with thunder and lightning — or in a still, small voice — the Infinite breaks through and reveals something true, something we can live by.
On Shavuot, we strive to say, “Hineni, Here I am. I am open.
“I am listening. And I am willing to receive guidance and take on mitzvot — practices, acts of connection and love — that will help me live with honesty and compassion.”
After Shavuot, when we come down from the mountain and return to our lives, we are urged to continue these practices to help us stay mindful and awake, to help us keep returning to awareness and presence, to keep the fires burning.
Rabbi Yael Levy is the author of Journey through the Wilderness: A Mindfulness Approach to the Ancient Jewish Practice of Counting the Omer. She leads A Way In, a Jewish Mindfulness program that combines meditation practice with Jewish text and ritual. She is also a rabbi at Mishkan Shalom congregation in Roxborough.