12 Steps and the Omer – Is the time of the Omer good or bad?

During this season every year – in between Passover and Shavuot – I find it a bit confusing. Is it a good time or a bad time? Is it a happy time or a sad time? On one hand we don’t do weddings and other restrictions. On the other hand, it is time of great internal cleansing as we count the Omer each night, to prepare for the giving of the Torah at Sinai. By contrast it is a time just after leaving Egypt, easily the lowest the Jewish people ever found themselves spiritually, and now we are on a 49 day journey to our complete spiritual awakening at Sinai. This journey, it would seem, would certainly be a positive one?

So which one is it?

Hillel the Elder said, as it related to loving your fellow person, “that which is hateful to you, don’t do to another. This is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary.”

In a similar style of simplifying the otherwise lengthy and complex, in 1937, Dr. Bob (Smith), founder of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), said the 12 steps of AA could be summarized in these three, two word sentences.

Trust God. Clean house. Help others. The rest is commentary.

Here is the full length version:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

You could see why his “summarization” is very helpful.

Not to simplify a lengthy – lifetime – journey from addiction to sustained sobriety, but there is a deep wisdom in this summary. The first three steps focus on our helplessness, our recognizing that we were powerless over a power stronger than ourselves (our drug of choice) and we had to humbly admit our inability to manage our lives. We had to turn to a Higher Power to help us, drag us out of our desperate state. That is “Trust God.”

The next eight steps are the inner work that we need to do. Making an honest and fearless moral inventory about who we are, what we are, what is not right and what needs fixing and starting the process of facing these painful truths and finally doing something about it. This is “Cleaning house.”

Finally, the outcome of all this is that when we work the program, we will have a “spiritual awakening” and we are to share this with others. This is “Helping Others.”

Incredibly, this is the exact journey the Jews had leaving Egypt to Sinai and we find ourselves in right now during the counting of the Omer.

Egypt, is that state of being where we were so helpless, we were so powerless over our lives that if it were not for the “Grace of God” we would have indeed become unredeemable. We didn’t free ourselves, God took us out and saved us. It was not on the merit of something we did, it is simply because He chose to do so. This is the humility and brokenness represented by matzah and specifically the broken matza and the holiday of Passover. One might say that Passover is steps 1-3 of the 12 steps. “Trust God.”

The next 49 days we work on our character defects and cleansing them. This is exactly the work of the counting of the Omer. (Each day corresponds to one the seven emotional attributes and their inter-correlation with another one of the 7. So kindness within kindness, Kindness within severity etc..) This is essentially a fearless moral inventory of every facet of our character, working and praying to God to remove them, making amends and turning a new leaf. This is essentially steps 4-11 of the 12 steps. “Clean House”

Finally, if we’ve done our work, we are assured that we will have our spiritual awakening. A Divine revelation that is far beyond the effort we put in, a gift from God if you will, and that is the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten commandments and the Torah. Our job is to receive it and work on it and share it with ourselves and others. This is step 12. “Help Others”

So, is counting the Omer a good period of time or bad? Is it happy or sad? The answer is that it is neither and both at the same time. It is a time we cease being what we were – helpless and out of control – and work on becoming brand new, what we will ultimately become, a true and humble servant of God. That is both extremely sobering (pun intended) and very inspiring.

It is not a time of frivolity nor is it a time of sadness. It is a special time of deep introspection and growth as we become reborn as brand new people as we work to become the new version of ourselves.

That is something worth celebrating, and we do it as we have the promised “spiritual awakening” on Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.

(Based on a series of lectures given by Rabbi Shais Taub)