POETRY IN THE DAYS OF SEFIRAH
The 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot are traditionally a time for introspection, recapitulating the purification which the Israelites needed to undergo after being taken out of Egypt in order to receive the Torah. It is said that in Egypt the Israelites had passed through “forty-nine gates of tumah” (uncleanness); had they passed through the fiftieth, they would have been past redeeming. On the other hand it is said that Moshe Rabbeinu passed through “forty-nine gates of understanding,” till he reached the fiftieth, which no mortal can enter. Forty-nine, then, seems to represent the limit of human possibility.
The forty-nine days of counting (Sefirah) are associated with the permutations of the lower seven Sefirot. These seven Sefirot are emanations of the Divine, but (since humans were made in the image of G-d) they are also related to human character traits on which we are encouraged to meditate during the omer counting period. Each of the seven weeks is associated with one Sefirah, and then each day in the week is assigned a Sefirah, so that there are forty-nine combinations.
The Sefirah period is not only a time of rectification but also a time of mourning. According to the Talmud, 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during the Sefirah period because they did not show one another sufficient respect. The sefirah period is the longest period of mourning in the Jewish calendar, though it is broken by Lag b’Omer (the thirty-third day) and is not as intense as the Three Weeks preceding the Ninth of Av, which are a period of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples. The two causes of mourning can be connected; the connection is made in a book called Me’al Lazman (Above Time), by the contemporary Breslov thinker, Rabbi Erez Moshe Doron. He writes that in mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva
“…we are also, and perhaps chiefly, mourning for ourselves and for our own condition. For the separation of hearts, the disputes and the gratuitous hatred, for lashon hara and the trampling of others’ merit, because of which, as our sages explain, the Temple was destroyed. The purpose of counting of the omer, as a preparation for the giving of the Torah, is the rectification of character traits. “Love of love, discipline of love,” and so on. And the chief test of the rectification of character traits is between oneself and others! In order to “contain” the light of the Torah, in order to receive it and to be worthy of redemption, the souls of Israel must be joined together, for the light of Torah and redemption is too great and vast to be contained in one heart/mind, and only the gathering of heart/minds without rancor, can “form” the vessel suitable for this.”
An old term for poetry in English is “numbers,” which suggests that the Sefirah might be an especially appropriate time for writing poetry. And on contemplation, the connection between poetry and the sefirah deepens. The Sefirah is supposed to rectify the “animal soul” and subject it to the discipline of the G-dly soul. That is why the omer is a measure of barley, a grain that was generally given to animals.
Poetry, too, addresses the animal soul. While prose speaks to the rational part of the mind, poetry also affects the listener or reader physically. And this physical effect is achieved largely through the rhythmic—numerical—relationships that constitute the form of the poem. These rhythmic devices can be used for good or ill; messages have been conveyed by poetry that have been anything but constructive. But the Sefirah offers an opportunity to use the devices of poetry for an end that can only be good.
Shortly after formulating that last thought, several years ago, I came upon a passage from a letter by the American poet Marianne Moore, concerning another poet whose skills she admired but whose morality she deplored:
“I would be “much disappointed in you” if you could feel about [the poet in question] as some of his acolytes seem to feel. An “effect,” an exhaustively great sensibility (with insensibility?) and genius for word-sounds and sentences. But after all, what is this enviable apparatus for? if not to change our mortal psychostructure?”
“Our mortal psychostructure”—isn’t this, precisely, the animal soul? Western poetry has not always aimed at the refinement of the animal soul, but Moore’s protest affirms that poetry can, indeed, be used for that purpose. If poetry can help us to hear the beating of the “one heart,” it would be a rectification of the art of poetry itself.
I have written four cycles for the counting of the omer, two in English and two in Hebrew. The last three cycles have consisted of six-line rhymed poems. I do not know why this form occurred and has stuck with me, but perhaps it could be interpreted in the light of the fact that Malchut, the last of the sefirot, is a summation of the preceding six and has nothing of its own; thus the poem consists of six lines plus the form.
There are many interpretations of the Sefirot; of the various guides that have been written for this period by scholars, each differs significantly from the others. I have consulted several of them, and do not know which should be considered the most authoritative. Of my own poetic cycles I can say only that they are an attempt to encounter the Sefirot, to enter with all one’s limbs into their mysterious castle.
The cycle of omer poems Up for the Count is posted here.