As we progress from the plateau of Pesach, becoming free from the oppression of Mitzraim and all that implies, and approach the culmination of our journey with Shavuot, merging with the highest state of awareness which we call Torah, we find ourselves in an eerie time. As we refine ourselves using the Sefirot (seven general personality areas) through the process of Sefira — counting the days of the Omer (Sefirat HaOmer), Jews have traditionally refrained from weddings, at least until ל”ג בעומר (Lag B’Omer), the 33rd day of this counting, as well as from getting haircuts and buying new clothes.
These restrictions are generally grouped together as part of the mourning rituals we observe to commemorate the mysterious death of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Indeed, the restrictions of marriage, or at least the festive chuppa ceremony, as well as refraining from buying new clothes does seem to directly relate to mourning customs. In fact, there is an elaborate rabbinic calculation (subtracting seventeen holy days in which the students did not die from the total of forty-nine days between the two holidays leaves thirty-two days which are then grouped together at the front of the period making ל”ג, the thirty-third the beginning of the period when these restrictions are dropped) to begin permitting celebrations after Lag B’Omer.
However, the mystical master, the Ari, the sixteenth century kabbalist, insists that the restriction on hair-cutting last all the way through the forty-nine day period because they are described as ימין דינין, days of judgement. In his kabbalistic writings, he describes the hairs, some from the back of the head, some from the beard, of אדם קדמון, Adam Kadmon, the Primordial Man, as transmitting energies of חסד, chesed, mercy, which are necessary to counteract the strict application of judgement, דין. As we alternate our awareness between the larger universe, אדם גדול (Adam Gadol) and the microcosm of each individual, עולם קטן (Olam Katan), we consider how our individual actions affect the greater world and thus refrain from any act which might limit the amount of mercy in the world, even though we don’t, can’t, quite understand this mechanism.
More prosaically, we recall that these days are the precarious period while we await the first harvest (which coincides with Shavuot). This is described as ימי דין על התבואה, Days of Judgement on the Produce. Nonetheless, we try to walk a very fine line in order to not attract negative energy.
Another way of looking at this is that we are walking a very fine line, trying to carefully and precisely refine ourselves, to become a pure vessel for the ultimate reality contained in the Torah, to prevent ourselves from polluting it with our own ego-weaknesses. Along this parameter, it doesn’t really matter if growing our hair has an empirical effect or not, it reminds us that, as we become physically scruffy, to not let our spiritual lives also become unattended.
Perhaps, however, an even more profound lesson comes from exploring the reluctance to buy new clothes which, as we look further, is really to deter us from saying the bracha Shehechiyanu v’Kiymanu v’Higiyanu LaZman Hazeh, Who has sustained us and maintained us and brought us to this time (of thanksgiving and recognition of the Source of all). This is also known as אמירת זמן (Amirat Z’man), the speaking or acknowledgement in time of the eternal presence of the Infinite.
One would think that, ideally, one should have this Shehechiyanu consciousness 24/7, that we be continuously aware and connect to the holy, the infinite, the divine, to God. After all, isn’t that what our rituals are aimed at, our prayers, our good deeds and our study?
Perhaps, however, this teaches us that even when we’re on our holiest, most serious journey, aiming directly at the state we call receiving the Torah, it’s unreasonable, arrogant even, to consider ourselves capable of maintaining this awareness over a sustained time. We’re shown that there are just times when being “in the moment” just is beyond us.
This parallels the almost burlesque narrative of Moshe just before he receives the Torah at Sinai. He’s told to climb the mountain, to hurriedly return to the camp only to immediately climb again, to descend again…. King Solomon in Mishlei, Proverbs, reminds us that even a holy tzaddik falls (at least) seven times. We can’t climb higher if we become so accustomed to our plateau that we consider it to actually be the summit!
So, perhaps, we combine mourning those who fell along the way, care in our own journey and humility in our own achievements.
…………the seventeen day of the Omer, Tiferet she’b’Tiferet, י”ז בעומר, תפארת שבתפארת, that balancing beauty of beauty and balance itself.