Omer: Psalm 67 and Lag BeOmer

April 23, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Posted in Counting the Omer | Leave a comment

(If you want my insights on this week’s Torah portion, Emor, click here: Emor posts. If you are counting the omer, or interested in the upcoming holiday of Lag BeOmer, read on.)

עמר

omer

Out of all 150 psalms, why is Psalm 67 the one in the service for counting the omer? The quick answer is that once you remove the first verse (For the conductor, with stringed instruments, a praising song) the song itself  has 7 verses and 49 words in Hebrew. And counting the omer is all about the numbers 7 and 49.

We count the omer (a measure of barley) for 49 days between the holy days of Pesach and Shavuot.  The Torah established the count to mark when to bring grain offerings to the priests. After the second temple in Jerusalem fell in 70 C.E., the omer count has gradually become a spiritual exercise to prepare for celebrating the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot, and for a future transformation of human consciousness.

I explored the first four steps of the omer service in my last two blog posts. Step #5 is Psalm 67, which was written while the Temple was standing, long before any Kabbalah was recorded. The last three steps of the omer-counting procedure of Kabbalah, which is still used in orthodox prayer-books today, are:

#5.  Psalm 67, a 7-verse song with 49 Hebrew words.

#6.  Ana Bekhoach, a 7-line poem written by a Kabbalist in the first century C.E.

#7.  Closing prayer framing the count in terms of Kabbalah, including the 7 lower sefirot. (Sefirot is the plural of sefirah, a word from the same root as sofeir = counting. Sefirot are categories of creative power, or forces ruling the universe and the human soul.) In the middle of this closing prayer, you fill in the blank with the  the sefirah of the day and the sefirah of the week. Over the course of seven days a week for seven weeks, you get 49 different pairings.

According to the Maharshal (16th-century Rabbi Shlomo Luria) the seven verses of Psalm 67  represent the seven lamps of the menorah in the priests’ court of the early sanctuary and the later temple. One tradition in Kabbalah is to write the seven verses of Psalm 67 so they look like the seven branches of the menorah, each branch blossoming into a lamp.

Psalm 67 also corresponds to the seven lower sefirot, which we use in step #7 of the omer-counting service. In my translation below, instead of numbering the verses, I will count them by sefirah. I wish I could also translate  Psalm 67 so that it has 49 words in English, but I’ll go for accuracy instead.

Chessed (=love, kindness): May God grace us and bless us; may It brighten Its face with us. —Selah (a musical instruction)

Gevurah (=strength, discipline): To make known on the earth Your path; among all the nations Your power to rescue.

Tiferet (=beauty, harmony): The peoples will thank You, God; the peoples will thank You, all of them.

Netzach (=long-lasting success): People will be glad, and they will sing out for joy; because You judge peoples on the level, and You comfort people on the earth. —Selah.

Hod (=splendor, majesty): The peoples will thank You, God; the peoples will thank You, all of them.

Yesod (=foundation): Earth gives her harvest; God, our god, blesses us.

Malkhut (=kingship): God will continue to bless us, and all the ends of the earth will be in awe of God.

One standard interpretation of Psalm 67 is that it prays for God to bless the Israelites (later known as Jews), so we can then teach other people about God. The psalm anticipates then then the other peoples will convert and receiove our God’s blessing; and finally all people, to the ends of the earth, will be full of grateful and awe for God. This may well have been the intent of the songwriter, but once a work is published, people are free to discover new meanings in it. And how could a Kabbalist counting the omer resist overlaying the framework of the seven lower sefirot on the seven verses of the psalm?

Does the overlay fit the verses? The first verse prays for God to treat us lovingly, and perhaps for us to return love to God; this is indeed a prayer for Chessed. Traditional commentary adds that the verse asks God to enlighten our minds, so we will have the intellectual ability and knowledge to teach others about God’s way or path in the second verse. Understanding and following God’s path certainly requires mental gevurah, the discipline of focus and attention. In my own experience, teaching also requires focus and attention. Thus the second verse calls for gevurah.

The line “The peoples will thank you, God; the peoples will thank you, all of them” appears twice in Psalm 67, first as tiferet, then as hod. Perhaps the first refrain points out the beautiful harmony of all the peoples, all the nations, united in thanking God. The second refrain points out the splendor of the one being thanked, God the creator.

In between, the netzach verse says people will sing with joy because God is both an honest judge and a comforter—an interesting pair of roles. I have noticed that children desperately want fairness, and need consolation when life does not go their way. Adults recognize that the universe cannot be that straightforward; sometimes people are hurt for no apparent reason. Yet we pray that at least we can achieve something important and long-lasting. We pray for fairness and comfort; but knowing the universe is not fair from our limited perspective, we also pray for netzach. Here, I think the sefirah adds an alternative to the verse, instead of restating it.

I think the netzach verse is a fervent plea, a supplication. Yet the hod verse, a refrain of the line about thanking God, expresses gratitude as if God has already granted our plea. Maybe once we experience the splendor and majesty of God, we can be grateful for any justice, comfort, and success we receive personally as the larger divine plan unfolds. The hod verse may also thank God for what all people receive in the following verse, yesod:  “Earth gives her harvest; God, our god, blesses us.”

When we notice all the gifts of nature, from the food we gather to the air we breathe, then we realize that God is always blessing us by maintaining the yesod, the foundation of our physical lives. In the final verse, the first phrase, “God will continue to bless us’, reflects the sefirah of malkhut both because it views God as the king of our world, ruling and protecting it, and because Kabbalah associates malkhut with the shekhinah, the feminine presence of God dwelling on earth. When all human beings experience the shekhinah, then, in the final phrase of Psalm 67, “all the ends of the earth will be in awe of God”.

At least these are correspondences I see between the seven lower sefirot and the seven verses of Psalm 67. You may see others. Psalm 67 does not appear to be a perfect fit for the  sefirot, but a more advanced Kabbalist may perceive meanings I cannot imagine.

As for me, Psalm 67 speaks to me as a prayer for grace and blessing and knowledge of how to follow a divine path; and as a prediction that someday all human beings will realize they do not run the world, or even their own lives, and all humans will be grateful and awed just to be alive, just for this universe to exist. That is a psalm I can sing or recite with a full heart.

עמר

In one way, the high point of the 49 days of counting the omer is the 50th day, the festival of Shavuot, when we celebrate two gifts from God: our first fruits, and the revelation at Sinai. But among the omer-counting days, the high point is Lag Be-Omer, the day that begins this year at sunset on Sunday, April 28. Lag is not an actual word. The Hebrew letter lamed, pronounced like an “l”, also stands for 30, and the letter gimmel, pronounced like a hard “g”, stands for 3. Add 30+3, and you have the number of the day of Lag Be-Omer, when the sefirot count reaches hod of hod.

The Hebrew Bible uses the word hod when people are dazzled by splendor and magnificence. It refers to God’s hod 12 times, to the hod of a king 7 times, to the hod of a horse twice (horses impressed the Israelites), and once each to the hod of Moses, Daniel, the son in Proverbs, and an exceptional olive tree in Hosea. How can we imagine the hod of hod, the splendor of splendor?

Start by being dazzled—maybe by a flaming, sparking, snapping bonfire on Lag Be-Omer, or maybe by watching water rush over stones as sunlight makes a dazzling pattern of white stars and the water-rock music makes more layers of sound than you can count. Then try to imagine a whole universe of constant change and splendor, all interconnected. This is the universe we are blessed to live in. If only we could remember it more often!

The peoples will thank you, God; the peoples will thank you, all of them.

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