Pesach and the Omer: An Opportunity for a Spiritual Reset

Pesach and the Omer: An Opportunity for a Spiritual Reset

Especially in this deeply fraught and challenging year, Pesach – and the seven week period leading to Shavuot – offers all a precious opportunity for a “spiritual reset.”

This part of the Jewish yearly cycle resonates powerfully with our mindfulness practice, which invites us to explore our inner life with curiosity, growing in awareness of our reactive, fear-based habits. Attending with curious, nonjudgmental attention to the truth of each moment (hitlamdut), we witness more clearly the energy of this “shadow” in our mind, emotions, and body.

And approaching this inner Mitzrayim (constriction) or frightened ego with compassion rather than harsh judgment, we experience greater spaciousness—greater freedom to shift that energy in a more wholesome or holy direction. We move with greater ease through the mouth of the Sea, into the midbar, the open wilderness. We are free.

In particular, Pesach invites us to cultivate greater awareness of the truthfulness in our thoughts and speech, to expand our freedom to direct the sacred gift of language to promoting Emet/Truth in the world.

The Hebrew word Pesach can be parsed into two distinct words—peh sach, or “speaking mouth.” According to a Hasidic understanding, Passover represents the liberation of speech. As slaves, the Israelites could only utter a raw, anguished cry (Exodus 2:23); in freedom, they could sing exultantly the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1-19).

In the swirling, powerful emotions of our times, even those of us who profess outrage at daily distortions of language and disregard for facts may discover ourselves “bending the truth” to suit our own preconceptions and biases. Mindfulness can help us catch ourselves more often when fear generates rationalizing thoughts or tendencies to fudge the truth. We may notice constrictions leading us to avoid “inconvenient” truths that challenge our preferred version of reality. Instead of harshly criticizing such inclinations, we can honor our fear, practice self-compassion, and notice options to promote truthfulness.

As a specific practice leading up to Pesach, consider the teaching of the prophet Zechariah, who urges us to “speak the truth with your neighbor; judge with truth, justice, and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16). Think of the “gates” as the place within us from which thoughts, emotions, and sensations arise to consciousness. Notice reactions arising, and the speech these reactions might generate. Pause and practice sh’tikah, silence. Consider these questions: Do I really need to say these words? Are they true? Are they just? Do they lead to shalom, to wholeness or wholesomeness?

As we approach Pesach, the liberation of speech, may we be freed from inner constrictions distorting our view of reality. May we pause before speaking, texting, writing or posting, and discern whether to remain silent or to express ourselves through words reflecting our highest and truest selves May Emet, the Divine quality of truth, flow freely through us, and fill the cracks of this fractured world.

Rising Above the Waves of Fear and Anger After October 7

Rising Above the Waves of Fear and Anger After October 7

Originally published on Times of Israel on March 27, 2024

These are fearful times that try our souls. Our nervous systems are overwhelmed by the ongoing trauma of October 7, the devastation of the Israel-Gaza war, surging antisemitism, political turmoil, and more. Threatened on so many fronts, our default inclination as human beings is to speak and act reactively, or remain frozen in silence.

Our fear-based reactivity may feel good in the short term. Anger may temporarily dull our pain, grief, and anxiety, and create a short-term sense of safety. But over time our habitual reactions inevitably are revealed as clumsy and unwise, often destructive of others and ourselves. In such heated times, we often behave as our own worst enemy – even while feeling powerless to stop and change course.

It’s hard to act wisely when we are pummeled by waves of strong emotion. We struggle to hit the pause button – to stop, collect ourselves, notice other options, and choose the wise course. The eye of the hurricane, a place of calm and clarity in the midst of turbulence–a place we all need so much right now–eludes us.

Where can we find that place of calm and clarity? Jewish tradition teaches us that that calm place begins in our own minds and hearts–that it is always available to us, if we can access it.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” wrote the Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. “In that space is our power to choose. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Whenever we act or speak immediately in reaction to external stimuli, without that much-needed space, we act from habit, a form of enslavement. There is no freedom, no choice, and no growth.

Jewish tradition and practice provides an antidote to reactivity
Shabbat provides us with an experience of stillness and quiet that is always available to us. Shabbat allows us to be rather than act. The fog of our mind can clear; our emotions can be fully felt, honored, and allowed to move through us. We can see more clearly and discern more wisely.

But Shabbat doesn’t only happen every seven days. We can bring Shabbat consciousness into our lives all the time, in every moment. Regardless of our level of traditional observance, we each can “keep Shabbat” by expanding the space between stimulus and response, pausing to breathe and suspend judgment – even for a moment. Some might describe this very Jewish practice in contemporary terms as mindfulness practice.

Judaism has a spiritual practice ideal for times like these: tikkun middot, a Jewish practice for developing character traits and aligning actions with our values. Tikkun middot practice integrates basic principles of Jewish mindfulness or “Shabbat awareness” with close attention to essential soul/ethical traits like loving connection, setting wise boundaries, humility, courage, and gratitude. Based on Judaism’s core principle that every human being is created in the Divine image, we come “factory-equipped” with these soul/ethical qualities.

Tikkun middot practice helps us insert and expand the space between stimulus and response. From within that space, we can more easily access our sacred traits so that rather than reacting instinctively from fear, we can freely choose a wise, sacred response representing our authentic selves, more aligned with our sacred values.

An ongoing Jewish spiritual practice can help us keep our balance – and tikkun middot is the ideal practice for trying times such as these. It can help us avoid falling prey to our baser instincts. It can help us maintain connection to sacred values and be true to who we are even when we are under duress.

The Omer: A Time for Tikkun Middot
The seven-week period linking Passover and Shavuot is known in Jewish tradition as the Omer, a time devoted to spiritual growth and ethical maturation. On Passover, we leave the enslavements of reactive habits. Over seven weeks, we shed these manifestations of slavery, growing daily in our capacity to make free choices more aligned with our essential self. On Shavuot, we arrive at Mount Sinai prepared to act freely from the moral wisdom with which we are imbued.

This spring, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality will offer a wonderful opportunity for engaging in just this process of spiritual and ethical growth – Awareness in Action: Cultivating Character through Mindfulness and Middot, a synchronous, online program in tikkun middot practice. Participants will join a supportive community of practice which helps them more consistently align their inner values with how they show up in the world.

Awareness in Action participants learn how to “practice Shabbat” in their daily lives by developing the capacity to hit the pause button before speaking or acting reactively and unwisely. Each week, they immerse in supported practice of a middah drawn from the theme of the respective week of the Omer: (1) Chesed, loving connection; (2) Gevurah, setting wise boundaries; (3) Anavah, balancing self and others; (4) Zerizut, acting promptly and persistently; (5) Hodayah, gratitude for life as it is; (6) Tzedek, seeking out and manifest what is fair, just, and right; and (7) Sh’mirat HaDibbur, wise communication. The program includes an additional post-Shavuot week of practice for fostering the middah of Emunah, faithfulness or steadfastness.

All materials are provided on a convenient online platform and supported by weekly live practice sessions I will host, and which will be led by guest faculty Rabbi Tamara Cohen, Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, and Rabbi Aaron Weininger.

As Jews have throughout our history, we need now to draw upon the wisdom of our tradition and practices to buoy us and help us steer wisely through the storms of our individual and collective lives, to bring us and future generations to a better time and place. The approaching Passover, fraught with emotion, affords us all a precious opportunity to free ourselves from the enslavement of reactivity, to remember and return to who we truly are, and to choose wise pathways aligned with the divinity within us.

​The Spiritual Practice of Revealing Hidden Light

​The Spiritual Practice of Revealing Hidden Light

“Darkness is your candle,” wrote the great Sufi poet Rumi. “You must have shadow and light source both.”  

Jewish tradition understands darkness as an inherent and necessary aspect of life; our spiritual task is to extract sparks of holy light concealed within the shadows of life. In this season of encroaching darkness, this practice takes on special import.

According to tradition, the sacred light of the first day of Creation extended to the end of the universe; the Talmud questions how this could be so, since the heavenly luminaries were not created until day four.  Rabbi Elazar answers that the light created on day one

was not that of the sun, but a different kind of light, through which humans could observe from one end of the world to the other. But when the Holy One of Blessing looked upon the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion and saw that their ways were corrupt and that they might misuse this light for evil, God arose and concealed it from them, as it is stated: “And from the wicked their light is withheld”(Job 38:15).

This light is concealed from human beings when we fall from consciousness and act “sinfully” or unwisely.  After Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree, God granted them only an additional 36 hours of this light (from Friday midday through the first Shabbat), after which fell to them and future human beings to reveal the now concealed light through our own initiative. 

We are charged with the task of perceiving and testifying to the continued existence of the or haganuz, the “hidden light,” and revealing it through sacred study and righteous deeds. The or haganuz is said to be revealed only to 36 tzadikim, 36 anonymous righteous people (the lamed-vavnikim) in each generation. This number corresponds as well to the total of 36 lights we kindle on a single hanukiah over the eight nights of Chanukah. 

Because we do not know the identities of the 36 individuals by whose righteousness the earth is sustained, each of us must act as if we may be a lamed-vavnik.  By bringing mindful intention to each of our words and actions, we can reveal the or haganuz, the light of sacred awareness which, while often concealed from view, is nevertheless present in each and every moment and experience.

Crunch Time in Chelm: A Neo-Hasidic Tale and Mindfulness Practice for the New Year (as told by Rabbi Marc Margolius)

Crunch Time in Chelm: A Neo-Hasidic Tale and Mindfulness Practice for the New Year (as told by Rabbi Marc Margolius)

[These events are true — or they could be. They took place in the town of Chelm, whose residents famously claimed that they themselves were not fools — it’s just that foolish things always happened to them.]

It was crunch time in Chelm. Or at least, it was supposed to be. Rosh Hashanah was scheduled to arrive early that fall, and the townspeople feared: what if the new crop of apples would not be ready for the holiday? How would they dip apples in honey for a sweet year?

The Chelmites arrived at what they considered a wise solution: to store apples from the previous fall in their root cellars. “We will certainly be blessed with ample apples for the New Year!” they thought.

But when the Chelmites went to their cellars on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, to their dismay they discovered that the stored apples had turned to mush. They had plenty of honey. But there was not an apple fit to be eaten in all of Chelm — only beets and potatoes and, as everyone knows, it would never do to dip those in honey.

The whole town was in a panic. “Yucky, mushy apples!” the children cried. “This will be a terrible, horrible, no good year!” Everyone ran to consult with the town’s foolish but brilliant rabbi, Reb Ashira Chaya, who sat drinking tea calmly in her study.

“Rebbe,” cried the whole town, “we have no apples for the New Year! Rosh Hashanah is so early, we knew the new apples on the trees would not be ready! But the apples we saved are mushy – and if we don’t have apples and honey, this will surely be a terrible year in Chelm!”

“My friends, don’t worry!” replied Reb Ashira. “Do you really think the Holy One of Blessing would let us begin the year without appropriate apples? Heaven forbid! Come with me – tonight, let us begin the New Year praying outside, in the apple orchard itself!”

With that, the rebbe led everyone out to the apple orchard of Chelm. The sunset was magnificent. The first sliver of the New Moon of Tishrei was rising. The stars were emerging. The air was clean and fresh and cool.

“Now,” said the rebbe. “Let’s slow down and just breathe together. Take a minute right now. Stop speaking; start listening. Place your hand over your heart. Remember how much God loves you. Breath that in. Embrace yourself.”

Everyone did so. They stopped. They breathed. They fell silent. Each Chelmite placed a hand over their heart and offered themselves the love they imagined coming towards them from the Holy One. Not a sound could be heard; just a breeze moving through the orchard. In the silence, in the stillness, they felt loved. They felt renewed.

“And now,” instructed the rebbe, “honestly ask yourself: how did I do as a human being this past year? How many mitzvot did I do for others? How many times could I have been more generous? Could have said the right thing? Could have stood up for others, tried to make peace, set things right?”

Each person took a moment to think of how they had missed the mark this past year, how they might have done better. Everyone felt a deep, palpable sadness and regret – and a desire to do things differently.

“Now,” she said, “take one more minute. Whisper to yourself: ‘I wish I had done better this year. I am sorry for anything I did that hurt another person. This year, may I be the best me as I can possibly be. May I be guided to do the right thing. May I do teshuvah, may the Holy One help me change my ways.’”

And everyone did as the rebbe said. Each and every Chelmite went over to someone they had hurt and said they were sorry and they would try to do better this year.

“Now,” said Reb Ashira Chaya, “take a look around.”

And to everyone’s shock, all the apples on the trees of the orchard — the very same apples which until that moment had looked too green and too small to eat — had turned beautiful. They were shiny, full, perfect for picking and eating. Everyone was amazed at what was, indeed, a Rosh Hashanah miracle.

“My friends,” said Reb Ashira Chaya, “everyone knows it’s impossible to keep apples crisp all year. They just keep getting mushier until we can’t even call them apples anymore. But even apples can turn. And when Rosh Hashanah comes, it’s crunch time! Tonight, we remember that we all have a chance to start over again, to have a fresh start. And suddenly the apples are hard and crisp, and when you take a bite, there’s a crunch.”

“These apples are a lot like we are tonight: crispy and crunchy. When we start a new year, on Rosh Hashanah, we try hard to be the best person we can be. But when the holidays are over, it’s tough to keep that going. We slip back into bad habits. Our best intentions, our clear ideas about who and how we want to be, begin to get a little bit softer. We start making mistakes. Just like the apples, we begin to get mushier.

“But the Holy One knows that we’re just human beings,” she said. “None of us is perfect. We all make mistakes. We already know that we’ll probably do some things this year that we’ll be apologizing for when Rosh Hashanah comes around a year from now. But tonight, let’s try to keep our promises to God as long as possible – let’s be as crisp and crunchy as we can, for as long as we can.

“Now, everyone, pick an apple, and take some honey. Let’s lift up our fresh apples, and our fresh promises, and let’s pray together that we can take the crispness, the firmness of our resolve and carry it into the New Year as best as we possibly can. May we in our humble village, may our people everywhere, may the whole world be blessed with a year of sweetness, of healing, of justice, of shalom!”

Practice: Holding our Broken Hearts with Love

Practice: Holding our Broken Hearts with Love

As we enter the month of Av this week, our spiritual task in this period is to grow in awareness of the brokenness in ourselves, our people, and our world – to allow the walls of our own hearts to crack open, allowing ourselves to become vulnerable to pain.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov contended that rather than avoiding or shutting out that which is painful, we must truly face and enter into it (Likutei Moharan I, 65). “Sometimes, when people don’t want to suffer a little,” Rabbi Nachman taught, “they end up suffering a lot.” (Siach Sarfey Kodesh I, 6). 

Rabbi Nachman notes that when experiencing pain, our natural human reflex is to close our eyes, which enables us to avoid external distractions and witness more clearly the underlying interconnectedness of life, thereby transcending one’s finite selfhood. The poet Robert Frost expressed this succinctly: “The best way out is through” (a line from his poem “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston, 1914).

In “The Guest House,” the Sufi poet Rumi similarly advises us to set an intention to accept everything that arises as ultimately serving a role in a larger purpose, if we allow it to pass fully through our “system” and “do its work:”

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

In mindfulness practice, we observe aversion to unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and sensations – and welcome them all as honored “guests.” As we wake up, we see more clearly the option of holding our broken heart with tenderness, rather than fleeing from unpleasant or painful thoughts and feelings. In that moment, we are better able to choose to bear that which seemed unbearable, freeing the energy in our brokenness to flow towards healing and wholeness.

A simple meditation practice for entering the month of Av:

  • Pause and receive three deep breaths into your belly, allowing the breath to arise and fall away at its own pace, with as little effort as possible.
  • Place one (or both) hands over your heart-space.
  • Consider: 
    • What heartbreak is present for you right now, behind the inner walls protecting you from pain and grief?
  • Holding your heart tenderly, with love and support:
    • Can you lower the walls enough to allow the pain of your broken heart to be present and move through you? 
    • Can you feel the presence of others who similarly are holding their own heartbreak with compassion and tenderness?
  • Allow the pain and grief to move through you – to “check out” of your inner “guest house.”
  • Come back to the breath. Hold your heart with strength and love. 
  • Call to mind or whisper to yourself the words of Psalm 147:3:

הָרֹפֵא לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב וּמְחַבֵּשׁ לְעַצְּבוֹת
HaRofeh Lish’vurei Lev, um’chbesh l’atzvotam
God heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds

To Prevent a Crisis of Clergy Burnout, Help Them Cultivate Their Inner Lives

To Prevent a Crisis of Clergy Burnout, Help Them Cultivate Their Inner Lives

As a spate of recent articles have proclaimed, clergy face a crisis. In his recent piece in eJewishPhilanthropy, Rabbi Lewis Kamrass, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), warned of the real possibility of an exodus of rabbis from congregational life, due to the extreme additional emotional and professional burdens imposed upon them by the pandemic. He urges congregational lay leaders to mitigate this trend by acknowledging these additional burdens, expressing appreciation, increasing compensation, offering scheduling flexibility and time off, and being forgiving and generous towards clergy.

All of these are excellent, tangible steps institutions can take to address the symptoms of “clergy burnout” — a constant vocational hazard for rabbis across the denominational spectrum, which is greatly exacerbated by the extraordinary demands placed upon clergy in these pandemic times. External expression of empathy, gratitude, and tangible support from congregational leaders can, to some extent, ameliorate the heavy load clergy are bearing. But by themselves, these are band aids which can cover, but not heal, the underlying source of the problem.

To address the root causes of burnout, Jewish clergy themselves—liberal, Orthodox, and of every stripe—need spiritual practices and resources to help them navigate periods of “full catastrophe living” (in the phrase popularized by mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn) with grace, resilience, and wisdom. This has, in fact, been our approach to working with over 500 clergy across denominations over the last two decades at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. As part of our Clergy Leadership Program, we bring rabbis and cantors on retreat and engage them in spiritual practices including mindfulness meditation, contemplative study and prayer. We do this not so that they “take time out” or gulp down some oxygen in order to then get “back in the race”, but rather that they become more able to experience all moments of their work and life as opportunities for witnessing and lifting up awareness of the Divine.

This approach is analogous to the ritual of inhaling the sweetness of the spices at the conclusion of each Shabbat. The aroma of the spices reminds us (among other things) to infuse the six days of the week with the restorative quality of Shabbat. The rhythm of Jewish living is not sprinting for six days, catching our breath on the seventh day, and then returning to the track. Rather, we immerse in practices which help us cultivate a sense of Divine Presence on Shabbat, so that we might be better able to infuse all of our moments during the week with an awareness of that Presence.

Using this far more sustainable model, we immerse clergy in spiritual practice on retreats every six months, and in the interim periods between retreats, so they can learn skills for infusing their daily lives with breath and with a sense of Presence. We seek to help them experience their professional challenges not simply as burdens to be borne until they can set them down and breathe again, but as opportunities to engage in — and to model for others — spiritual practice and cultivate awareness of the sacred dimension of life.

The results of this approach are striking. Even years after their participation in our Clergy Leadership Program, 99% of alumni report that, because of their spiritual practice, they are able to be more fully present (56% of which report “to a great extent”) and 94% have greater emotional resilience (42% “to a great extent”). Amazingly, fully 87% of participants report that developing a spiritual practice increased their connection to their Jewishness.

This approach to Jewish mindfulness practices empowers clergy so that in times of stress they are better able to remain present in body, mind, and spirit — present for their congregants, themselves, and the Divine. Through their practice, clergy learn to exercise self-compassion rather than berating themselves for not being able to “do it all” and do it “perfectly.” By becoming more tender and compassionate towards themselves, they also learn to be more compassionate with those they serve.

It is easy in this period for clergy to imagine they need to be heroic figures, that they are being “tested”. But here we might learn from a 19th century Hasidic commentator, the Tiferet Shlomo (R. Shlomo Hakohen Rabinowitz of Radomsk, 1803-1866) who taught that the Hebrew word for the verb “test” — “nisa” — can be understood as a reverse acronym for the Hebrew expression “someikh noflim”, “uplifting the fallen”, a descriptor of God found in our liturgy. On the basis of this approach, that which appears to us as a “test” may actually be an opportunity instead to simply be present, to respond hineini, “I am here”, and notice a Divine source of strength buoying and uplifting us, rather than waiting to see if we will “pass” or “fail”.

Rabbi Kamrass is correct: particularly in these times, Jewish clergy need empathy and material support from their lay partners in congregational life and from the community at large. At the same time, more than ever they need spiritual tools, resources and community which can serve as somkhei noflim, supporting them in the midst of their efforts “in the field.” If we are to stem the tide of burnout and an exodus from the pulpit, we must support Jewish clergy to help them transform the “test” of these times into ongoing moments of spiritual uplift and awareness of the Divine Presence.

Rabbi Marc Margolius is a Senior Program Director at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.


[1] With gratitude to my teacher and friend Rabbi Dorothy Richman (a member of the IJS Rabbis 2 cohort) who offered this teaching on the IJS Daily Meditation on October 21, 2021.