“Once a person makes themselves like the wilderness, ownerless (hefker) and exposed to all, the Torah is given to them, as it is written, ‘And from the wilderness, it was given’ [Numbers 21:18].”
: כֵּיוָן שֶׁעוֹשֶׂה אָדָם אֶת עַצְמוֹ כַּמִּדְבָּר, שֶׁהוּא מוּפְקָר לַכֹּל — תּוֹרָה נִיתְּנָה לוֹ בְּמַתָּנָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וּמִמִּדְבָּר מַתָּנָה״.
—Talmud Bavli Nedarim 55a
Iyar is an in-between sort of month as we relive our people's time of wandering the desert wilderness, moving from liberation to revelation.
Throughout Iyar, we are counting the Omer, a count we began on the second night of Passover. In Temple times, the Omer was the barley crop, and we counted 49 days until the first sheaves were ready to be harvested and to be brought as a gratitude offering to the Temple in Jerusalem. In our time, we count the 49 days between Pesach/Passover and Shavuot, the holiday in which we celebrate and reenact receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Traditionally, the Omer is a thoughtful, sober period. Many people do not have weddings or other big celebrations during the Omer. Some folks do not cut their hair or shave. It is a time of self-reflection and self-assessment in preparation for our encounter with the Divine. (You can sign up for daily Omer texts from At The Well, My Moon Message, to help introduce you to this time of growth.)
Last month, Nisan, we celebrated our liberation from Egypt — from Mitzrayim, the narrow places of enslavement. It was a time of great joy. This month we get to walk thoughtfully with our memories of Mitzrayim and to account for the trauma and old behaviors that remain. The desert burns away self-deception; there is nowhere to hide in all that emptiness.
We learn in Talmud that to get to Sinai and receive Torah, one has to be hefker — ownerless — like the wilderness through which we wander. Sometimes that means we can no longer be owned by the past.
A person doesn’t get to the second half of life without a few regrets. Many folks reach mid-life and start to assess. Sometimes regrets are about genuine failures, times when we were not our best selves. Others are merely reflexive — they refer to dreams and ambitions that one really doesn’t have anymore. Sometimes they come from measuring ourselves in comparison to other people.
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan writes:
“At some point…each of us confronts a crisis…We might confront a sudden rupture, such as grief, illness, job loss, or family breakup. We might enter into a gradual and welcome change such as retirement or grown children. In each case, we might appear to do a fine job coping with the changes; all our practical first-half-of-life skill sets keep on rolling. Yet something happens inside us for which our practical first-half-of-life skills are no help whatsoever. We might…feel like a failure, though we don’t look that way to others... Our familiar sense of who we are and how we relate to our own thoughts and feelings has come unanchored…”
We may find ourselves ready to dispense with regrets that have gone stale — expired loves or dreams that we can simply release. (When I was a kid, I was sure that I’d grow up to be a paleontologist. I knew all the Eras and phyla and all that. Now and again, when I read of a fossil discovery, I get a little wistful. But actually — I love being a rabbi and wouldn’t trade it for anything.)
On the other hand, we might realize, and not for the first time, that old ways of thinking and doing, holdovers from the narrow places, continue to weigh down our lives. That may be the hardest part of the Omer journey, the realization that one is still carrying those old burdens. It’s easy to think, “Oh no, not this again — not this issue, this behavior I don’t like, this negative reflex! I just can’t.” But we can also see it as a whole new chance to unravel the legacy of Mitzrayim, our training in self-enslavement, and leave more of it behind than we did last year. The Omer brings a sense of no more time to waste, a reminder to make the most of each day.
After the 33rd day of the Omer count, Lag B’Omer, the mood of our journey begins to shift. We are moving toward Sinai, toward the gifts of nurture and purpose and joy. We pick up the pace as we jettison what holds us back. Now we are not just walking away from constrictions of the past — we are moving eagerly toward our destined future.
To journey fully into the reflectiveness of the Omer is to remember that we are walking toward the most wonderful healing. The more we are cleared out, hefker and free, the more we get to fill ourselves up with the Torah yet to come.
At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.
Talmud Bavli Nedarim 55a
Life's Night and Day (Long), Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan