A wealthy Jew dies and in his will leaves millions of dollars for various organizations and for his family and friends. At the funeral, the Rabbi notices some stranger weeping uncontrollably.
"Why are you crying so intensely? Were you related to the man?" asked the Rabbi.
"No,” came the reply.
"So why are you so distraught?"
"Well, as I just said, because I wasn’t related to the man.”
Counting Days and Weeks
Usually, people struggling to overcome detrimental and challenging characteristics do so indiscreetly and alone. The 12-step program is a relatively modern phenomenon (the first 12-step fellowship was formed in 1935). Judaism, on the other hand, designates a period of the year for “communal therapy,” when together we focus on healing our inner selves, step by step, issue by issue, emotion by emotion. This period is called Sefirat Haomer, and it spans the forty-nine days between Pesach and Shavuot, corresponding to 49 emotional dimensions in the human psyche (discussed below). On each of the forty-nine days, we focus on one emotion in our lives, examining it, refining it and fixing it.
Each day, after nightfall, we make the blessing for this unique Mitzvah, and then count the day: “Today is the first day to the Omer,” “Today is the second day to the Omer,” or “The third day to the Omer,” etc. The Omer is the barley offering brought in the Temple on Passover, marking the commencement of this 49-day count.
There is however, something strange about the way we count. At the conclusion of the first week, we begin to count as follows: “Today is seven days, which is one week to the Omer.” “Today is eight days, which is one week and one day to the Omer.” “Today is forty eight days, which is six weeks and six days to the Omer.” Now this seems to be absolutely redundant. Why don’t we stick to one sort of time unit, either days or weeks? Either say simply: “Today is seven days to the Omer,” and if you want to know how many weeks that is you can do the math yourself, or alternatively, stick to weeks: “Today is one week to the Omer” and you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to know how many days that includes!
In truth, this is not merely a random line thrown in by an anonymous author of the Siddur (prayer book), but a meticulously chosen style with its origin in the Talmud (1): “Abaye stated, ‘It is a Mitzvah to count the days, and it is a Mitzvah to count the weeks.’” This is because both are mentioned explicitly in the Torah (2): “And you shall count for yourselves … seven weeks; they shall be complete. Until the day after the seventh week you shall count fifty days…”
Clearly then, the Torah talks about two forms of counting: counting seven weeks and counting 49 days. Hence, we fulfill both mandates: We count 49 days and we count seven weeks.
Yet this in itself demands explanation. Why is the Torah adamant that we count both the days and the weeks simultaneously? One of these counts seems superfluous. What do we gain by counting the week after we have already counted the days? What would be missing if we left out the weeks, or conversely, if we left out the days?
The answer to this question opens the door to understanding a fundamental approach of Judaism to psychology, self-help and emotional growth.
A man walks into a bar. He calmly orders a drink and proceeds to abruptly pick up his glass and throw it at the shocked bartender. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he begins apologizing profusely, pleading for forgiveness: “I am so mortified, please understand, I suffer from uncontrollable rage, I am deeply ashamed of it. I don’t know what came over me; please forgive me for my embarrassing behavior.” The bartender graciously forgives him.
This happens nightly for a week straight, each outburst is followed by sincere regret and expression of profound shame. Finally, the bartender makes an ultimatum: “Either undergo intense therapy or do not ever enter this bar again.” The man consents.
A year later, he returns to the bar, hopefully a rehabilitated man. But lo and behold, he immediately takes his glass and again heaves it at the bartender!
“What are you doing?” the bartender thunders, “I thought you went to therapy!”
“I did,” he says, “and now I am not embarrassed anymore.”
What is the experience of Sefirat Haomer? The counting of the 49-days is the journey of the Jew from Egypt to Sinai, from slavery to freedom. In Egypt, the Jews adopted much of the Egyptian immoral depravity, and had to undergo an intense period of “spiritual therapy” to become worthy of the Torah, a blueprint for living an integrated, meaningful, wholesome and dignified life.
Why does the journey take 49 days, or seven weeks? Because the seven weeks represent the seven underlying building blocks of the human psyche called the middot, and they are further subdivided by themselves, as each one includes the characteristics from the other six emotions.
The seven middot are Chesed (love), Gevurah (might, restraint), Tiferet (beauty, empathy), Netzach (victory, ambition), Hod (consistency and devotion), Yesod (foundation, bonding) and Malchut (leadership, selflessness). Each one of these seven is further subdivided into seven, for example, Chesed itself is made up of seven building blocks: There is the Chesed aspect of Chesed, and then the Gevurah aspect of Chesed, etc.
So each week of the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer is dedicated to improving one middah, one of our seven emotions. The first we focus on the love in our life; the second week we focus on the restraint and discipline in our life; the third week we focus on our ability for empathy; the fourth week – this week – we focus on the ambition in our life, and so forth. Each individual day of a week is dedicated to a tiny and specific part of that general middah, dissecting the individual components of each emotion.
Now, there are people who insist on only counting the weeks, while others who insist on only counting the days.
Comparing Yourself to Madoff
Week-oriented people insist on generalizing their perception of themselves, on focusing on the overall emotion, while ignoring the nitty-gritty uncomfortable details.
If I were to ask you, “Are you a good person?” What would you say?
Well I am sure, at least some of you would answer, “Rabbi, if you’re talking generally, I think I’m a pretty good person.”
And you’re probably right, too. As long as we don’t take the question to your wife, or even better, to your mother-in-law, you are generally a good person.
But let’s get more specific. “Do you ever lie?”
“Usually not. I’m not a liar.”
“Usually? What does ‘usually’ mean?”
“Well maybe once in a while, you know, rarely. A white lie, the ones everybody says.”
“So when you called 60 minutes ago and said, ‘I’m sorry that I am late to the appointment; I’m stuck in traffic,‘ were you really stuck in traffic, or did you simply leave your office late and blamed it on the traffic?”
“Well, I did leave a little late, but there was also traffic…”
“Okay. One more question, are you a caring husband?”
“Of course I am.”
Do you ever insult your wife?
“Maybe once a month, in the midst of a stressful day, I’ll send my wife an obnoxious text message. Or if she really gets on my nerves, I may blow up and denigrate her… but generally I’m a kind guy.”
I agree. You are a kind guy. And if you were to compare yourself to Bernie Madoff, you’re not just a kind guy; you’re a saint! But are we here on this world to placate our guilt, or to take our “bull” by its horns and live up to our psychological, moral and spiritual potential?
An older man died. He was loathed in the community, and had the reputation of being stingy, selfish, and mean. At the funeral, no one offered a eulogy. They simply had nothing nice to say about him. The Rabbi stood up and said that they cannot bury him until someone says a nice comment about him. But to no avail, nobody had anything nice to say…
Finally, after waiting for hours, an old man gets up. “I will say something nice. I have a short eulogy for him.”
The crowd was stunned. Anxiously, they waited until he came to the podium. He had five words to say:
“His brother was much worse…”
You see, it is also easy to retain a highly positive self-image if you do not analyze the details, if you do not dissect the motivations of your actions, or if you compare yourself to Stalin. When you place yourself somewhere along the spectrum of humanity between Paul Pot and Mother Teresa, your score will come out pretty good.
Comes the Torah and says, do not only count the weeks; remember to count the days as well. Do not only view yourself in general and superficial terms. Do not be afraid to challenge yourself deeply. Don’t become a good person by comparing yourself to the Madoffs of the world; but rather by asking yourself, “Am I living up to the potential of my soul? Am I a good person only because my parents raised me well, inculcating in me basic ethical values, to distinguish wrong from right, or did I really work on myself to refine my character, to confront my negative tendencies and inclinations and to cultivate my soul”? Am I settling for mediocrity by refusing to go beyond the “weeks” into the “days?”
Are You In Therapy 24/7?
Then there are the people who are hung-up on counting days, shunning the week-count.
These individuals overanalyze themselves; they dissect and agonize over everything that they ever say, or that is ever said to them. They criticize each emotion that might be flawed; they are so deeply introspective that when you throw at them a simple “how is your mood today?” it might send them right into the therapist’s office.
There are people who are so deeply engrossed in their emotions that they forget that other people exist; they can no longer see the forest from the tress. They sometimes become trapped in their own self-consciousness and are unable to detach and view themselves or their actions objectively.
I know some people who run from the therapist to the psychiatrist, to the psychoanalyst, then to yoga in order to relax; but of course one conversation with their mother or father puts them right back on the couch…
At a Shabbos address, the Lubavitcher Rebbe once shared the following story:
A brilliant biology Professor was once lecturing to his students about the physiological process of walking. For hours he expounded to his students the extraordinary intricate mechanisms and the thousands of muscular movements and nervous activity involved in the seemingly simple act of walking. When the teacher finished the class, none of the students could get up, take a step and walk… Aware of what must occur for a person to take even a single step, aware of how many myriads of details must come together in order for the leg to walk, they became overwhelmed and paralyzed.
Sometimes, when you overanalyze the details, when you become conscious of everything – you cannot function any longer. When we focus only on the specific details of our emotions, and do not see the larger picture, the end-result, our self-work can deprive us from the ability of enjoying life and fulfilling our mission in life.
The Food is True
There was once a philanthropist, a disciple of Rabbi Schnuer Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, who was tormented by the feeling that everything he was doing was for ulterior motives. This was a man with a sterling reputation for generosity, yet in his exacting mind it was all superficial and false. He told the Alter Rebbe that even when he gave charity to the poor, it was only intellectually enforced --because he knew that it was the right thing to do--and not with genuine compassion. He concluded that he had no inner truth, no emes.
The Alter Rebbe listened carefully, meditated for a few moments, and then said: “But the food the poor man feeds to his hungry children is one hundred-percent true; it is emes.”
Your motives may sometimes be selfish, but the bread the poor man puts on the table – that is true!
This is a critical message in life. I could analyze my deeper motives all day and discover hundreds of skeletons still lurking in my closet. I can then rent a microscope from my therapist and look again, and discover millions of miniscule demons running around freely in the subconscious cellars of my psyche. I can explain to my wife or to my husband how complicated I am, and that just because I am paranoid it does not mean that the whole world is not trying to get me…
I may even be right in many of my insights. But the bottom line is – tachlis: Am I bringing light and hope into the world? Am I living as an ambassador of G-d to saturate the world with the light of Torah and Mitzvos? Am I a loyal friend, a loving parent, a caring spouse, a passionate Jew, a beacon of inspiration to people around me? Or will I forever wallow and get stuck in the internal maze of my complex brain-cells?
“Abaye stated, ‘It is a Mitzvah to count the days, and it is a Mitzvah to count the weeks.’”
Abaye was a round orphan. His father died while his mother was still pregnant with him, and he was named after him; his mother died shortly after childbirth (3). He was therefore the person who can teach us this lesson; nobody could suspect him of being superficial, insensitive and emotionally clueless. He knew what it means to have a hard life.
This great Talmudic figure, Abaye, teaches us this invaluable lesson: it is necessary to count both days and weeks. We must work on correcting our emotions day by day, specifically, and minutely. We cannot console ourselves by comparing ourselves to others, or with generalizations, which lead to mediocrity. We strive for absolute sincerity and pure motivation; we fight for the deepest truth and the most real idealism. Yet at the same time, we cannot get lost in endless self-analysis, without regard for practical and concrete results. We have to know the goal before we begin; we have to see the forest from the trees. We have to see how our days are coming together to form weeks.
At the end of each day, I have to be able to answer this question: “Did I leave the world a better place today than it was yesterday?”
Does my ego need a ‘flick’? Yes, it does. Do I have unresolved issues, oh yes I do, and I ought to confront them without fear. Yet I must also remember, that during each and every moment of my life, my soul is on a journey; it was empowered with a mission to be a source of goodness and kindness, of light and of love, and that can never be compromised.
(My gratitude to Avi Shlomo for his help in transcribing and preparing this essay.)
1) Menachos 66a.
2) Leviticus 23:15-16.
3) Talmud, Kidushin 31b. See Sichas Shabbas Parshas Tetzaveh 5752.
4) This essay is based on the maamarim Mashchani 5655, 5668; Usfartem Lachem 5711, and other maamarim which discuss the distinction between the general number of 7 middos (kelal) vs. the specific number of 49 (peratim.) Yet in the maamar Usfartem 5711, the explanation is reverse: “Weeks” represent the work of sublimating the core essence of each middah, without practical application; it is delving into the very depth of each middah and fixing it. “Day,” on the other hand, represents the labor of refining the details of each middah as they relate to practical and concrete behavior. This is also the explanation there in the opinion of Rabanu Yerucham, that today there is a biblical mitzvah to count only days, and a rabbinic mitzvah to count also weeks. The opinion of the Rambam is that both are biblical commandments even today; the opinion of Tosefos is that in nowadays both are rabbinic commandments. Cf. Shulchan Aruch Harav Orach Chaim section 489:2;17 .