Every media site and social-media platform is full of ideas these days on how to maintain your physical and emotional health during this time of pandemic. But I always return to columnist Connie Shultz’s Facebook page and her oft-repeated and most important advice: Don’t forget to breathe.
To parents trying to work at home and see to their children’s education: Don’t forget to breathe.
To front-line workers in health care and food service and public protection: Don’t forget to breathe.
To all of us trying to get through one day to the next: Don’t forget to breathe.
Especially when we are protecting ourselves and our neighbors by wearing protective masks and it’s hard to do it – take time to breathe.
It may sound obvious. But I don’t think so. We supposedly have time on our hands these days, but if you’re like me, you are over-doing everything, every day, and always thinking you’re not doing enough. I think we forget how much just sitting still and having a deep breath in and out can steady us.
So let’s do that now. On the count of three, let’s breathe.
I think of this time of year as a divinely ordained big, deep breath. We are in the middle of the counting of the omer. On the calendar of life, it’s the time in Israel when farmers prepare to gather their late-spring crops. On the sacred Jewish calendar, it marks the passage of time between Passover and Shavuot – between the redemptive salvation of the Exodus from Egypt and the redemptive covenant of Torah at Sinai.
In some traditional communities, it’s treated a period of semi-mourning – ironically, in remembrance of the deaths of 24-thousand students of the great Rabbi Akiva, who died in a horrific plague that swept through Israel. Other than one day – Lag b’Omer, the 33rd day of out of 49 — weddings do not take place and new clothing is not worn. People don’t get haircuts – a restriction that applies to all of us in this year of plague.
And in the Jewish mystical tradition, the counting of the omer, day by day, is treated as a time of transformation – a “cosmic cleansing,” as one Kabbalah web site put it. During these weeks – seven weeks signifying the number of wholeness and holiness – we take time to reflect on our own paths to wholeness and holiness. As we inhale, what harmful elements are we taking in? Anger? Selfishness? Frustration? Stubbornness? As we hold that breath in, how are we processing and breaking down what is harmful? As we exhale, how are we transforming what is harmful into what is helpful, peaceful, kind, generous, and patient?
Each week of the omer, we look at one of the seven basic human attributes that make up who we are. Each day of each week, we look at how this attribute intersects with another. Today is the 23rd day of our count – the second day of the fourth week. This week, we work on the value of netzach, or endurance, and today, we consider how it intersects with the value gevurah, or discipline. Endurance and discipline. How very appropriate.
Endurance and discipline, like any of the seven human attributes, have both positive and negative qualities to it. So we need to be honest with ourselves: Is our endurance out of strength or weakness? Are we just being stubborn and stuck in our ways, or are we working toward something better for the world? Can we discipline ourselves to get out of the rut we’re in and break bad habits? Can we commit ourselves to changing our thinking and our behavior, so that these two elements combine to make us strong in a healthy and productive way – not only for ourselves but for all the other people who need our love and our commitment and our constancy, now more than ever?
If we take that deep breath and do just one good thing we might not otherwise have done, we have brought divine love into the world.
This week we read the Torah portion called Kedoshim – holiness. How very appropriate. We are called by God: K’doshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai elohechem. “You shall be holy for I, the eternal God, am holy.”
This command, this challenge, is directed toward Kol adat b’nai Yisrael, the entire Israelite community. The self-reflection we do each day of the omer may be intensely private and unique and personal. But actually bringing that change into the world – walking that path to a better life — can only be achieved when we stick together and support each other. The mitzvot that the Torah outlines this week run the gamut from ritual to business ethics to family relationships, to how we treat the most vulnerable people in our communities. K’doshim tihiyu demands that we take the divine spark that we cultivate during these days, and release it into the world to make the world better for everyone.
K’doshim tihiyu. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Worka once asked: Can God demand that a human attain the level of holiness? And he answered: God does not demand that we become as holy as angels – because that’s impossible. All that God demands is that each of us attain the level of holiness of which we are capable. In whatever circumstances we find ourselves, advance a little at a time into our holiness.
That’s what counting the omer is all about. Walking day by day, a little at a time, into your holiness.
Be brave. And don’t forget to breathe.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2020, Audrey R. Korotkin
For more guidance on counting the omer, visit these web sites:
 See the commentary in Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2001), p. 693.
 Torah Gems Volume II Shemot and Vayikra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd., 1992), p. 309.